Women?s Basketball Moves in Right Direction in 2007-08
Twelfth-year head coach Rusty Cram was returning a solid nucleus - ten letterwinners from the 2006-07 squad, which included all-Southern Conference pick Tiffany Brown (Waxhaw, N.C.) and conference freshman of the year Carolyn Whitney (Duluth, Ga.). The team was looking to both turn things around from the under-.500 finishes two years straight and to get the program back among the league’s elite.
“Two years ago, when we didn’t finish exceptionally well, we set out to remap the program,” said Cram. “We made some wholesale decisions about where we wanted to head.”
The direction of the program was simple: secure at least 18 wins and finish among the top three of the Southern Conference.
The greatest strength of the program was its depth. But like many teams just starting off the season, and with the absence of some players in the regular mix, the Lady Eagles were still trying to peg down certain positions. And with the installment of a new offensive scheme, the true test of its utility still lay ahead when competition began on a three-game road trip that led to Jacksonville and Stetson, and ended at then No. 9/10 ranked Georgia.
Dropping the fist game versus the Dolphins, GSU bounced back and picked up its first win of the season over the Hatters. Shawnda Atwood (Pensacola, Fla.) notched her fourth career double-double with 12 points and 10 rebounds to lead the team in the winning effort. The Lady Eagles immediately returned to the Peach State for an in-state bout with top-10 team Georgia. Perhaps a little weary from playing its third game in five days, GSU was bettered by the experience and size of the Lady Bulldogs.
The Blue and White returned back to Statesboro to entertain for the first time of the season in a bout versus Jacksonville State. In his fifth meeting with JSU, Cram picked up his first-ever victory over the Gamecocks. That win at home would become the first of one of the best home-records the Lady Eagles have ever experienced. It also put the Lady Eagles back at .500 at 2-2.
The ladies celebrated Thanksgiving in the Lone Star State where they competed in a tournament versus Southeastern Conference’s Arkansas and host UTSA of the Southland Conference. Dropping both games, Georgia Southern had to rebound quickly for the Southern Conference opener at Davidson five days later.
Led by Ashley Melson’s (Newnan, Ga.) game-high 24 points, the Lady Eagles tried to rally back from an 11-point, halftime deficit, but the Wildcats held on for the SoCon victory.
Finishing up November with a 2-5 (0-1) record, Georgia Southern soon turned things around in December, winning three of the next four games versus USC Upstate, Appalachian State and Presbyterian - with each victory in front of the home crowd. The lone loss came at the hands of Georgia Tech, who ran away in the second half shooting 56 percent from the field.
By the end of the calendar year, the Lady Eagles were carrying a 5-8 record following a pair of losses at the VCU SportsCenter Holiday Classic. They were looking for some answers and some consistency to a see-saw beginning.
“We were still trying to figure out the depth,” said Cram.
“But we were playing people that maybe coming off the bench later were in starting roles during that period. It was a year with high expectations going into the season. Once we got through all of that, you had to work on your timing; you had to learn the new offense. Everybody we played gave us a different look against that offense where we were having to learn new options off of it, and maybe the third or fourth option we weren’t ready for yet that came to fruition later in the year.”
On the brink of entering the Southern Conference portion of the schedule, the New Year’s slate began with a continuation of the latter half of a four-game road trip, with UNC Greensboro and Elon on the calendar. If the Lady Eagles could just turn things around by getting back in the winning column, then they would have the momentum coming home for a four-game homestand.
After all, the Lady Eagles had won all four home games up to this point, and with the fans at Hanner Fieldhouse ready to see their Lady Eagles play for the first time in 2008, winning was the only option.
The next seven weeks saw the Lady Eagles play some of their best basketball, with each individual playing a part in some way towards the team effort. The fruits of their labors: 11 wins in 12 games and a place among the league’s top two.
On January 5th and 7th, Georgia Southern soared past the Spartans and Phoenix, redeeming themselves from last season’s losses at Greensboro and Elon. The Lady Eagles were now one game shy of the .500 mark and were hoping to continue the momentum back in Statesboro.
Continue they did.
Visiting Hanner Fieldhouse were Wofford and Furman. Wofford had won six of their last seven games and Furman was looking to bounce back after a rough stretch. Georgia Southern improved to .500 (8-8) on the season and 4-1 in league play with a 60-54 win over the Terriers. Two days later, Hanner Fieldhouse witnessed a career milestone by Tiffany Brown as she scored her 1,000th-career point which led to the team’s 59-53 victory over the Paladins and a perfect 6-0 home record.
Now the Lady Eagles were back on the winning track with a 9-8 overall record and a 5-1 SoCon slate. And although two of the next three contests were to be played at Hanner, they would not be any easier with College of Charleston, Western Carolina and Chattanooga, each in the top four of the league standings. With Charleston and Georgia Southern tied for second in the SoCon standings (5-1), this game would decide who maintained sole possession of the second spot.
With three Lady Eagles scoring in double-digits on a combined 35 points, GSU soared to a 64-47 victory over the Cougars. The win solidified Georgia Southern’s place among the league’s elite with the second-best record in the conference.
While Georgia Southern was off the following Monday, its next opponent - Western Carolina - was able to improve to 6-1 with a win at Furman and move into a tie for second place with the Lady Eagles. In addition to GSU’s perfect home record, (7-0), the weekend’s Southern/Western match-up placed sole possession of the number two spot in the league standings on the line, again.
And again, the Lady Eagles rose to the occasion.
The fourth-largest Hanner crowd in GSU women’s basketball history - 1,710 fans donned in pink in response to the Pack the House in Pink’ challenge - witnessed the Lady Eagles improve to 11-8 overall and 7-1 in SoCon action. The win marked the team’s sixth-consecutive overall and seventh-consecutive conference victories, which was its best win-streak since going 12-0 in games from January to March 2001. Again, GSU had the second-best record in the league.
And home was still a perfect place: eight wins.
The homestand was interrupted by a brief road trip to top-conference team Chattanooga where the Lady Eagles suffered a 64-50 loss at McKenzie Arena. Although it was their first loss of the month, a different leader had stepped up, J'Lisia Ogburn (Dublin, Ga.), who had tallied a team-high 12 points and 10 rebounds versus the Mocs.
“The two major things that we felt like turned the year, was first bringing Brown off the bench because she brought such a spark there,” said Cram. “And second, J'Lisia Ogburn made a big turn right after the tournament at VCU. We saw some things in her that we had been looking for finally. And she went through a stretch there that we felt that she was really doing well and becoming hard to defend, playing some pretty good defense and gave us some stability inside at that five position.”
The Lady Eagles rebounded from the brief hiccup, returning back to Hanner Fieldhouse and completing the season-sweep over UNC Greensboro and Elon and winning their ninth and 10th consecutive games at home, which at one point would be counted as the 10th longest such streak in the nation.
It was back on the road for the next four games. The Lady Eagles edged opponents Wofford and Furman in a tough pair of contests that were decided in the final minutes. At College of Charleston, Georgia Southern exploded on both sides of the court in the second half, hitting 48 percent from the field and holding the Cougars to just 10 points.
The win over Charleston marked the 11th in the last 12 games and the Lady Eagles held a 16-9 overall and 12-2 conference record. During that 12-game span, five different players had led the team in scoring while only once had there been a player lead in scoring two consecutive times.
It was the kind of streak the team was looking for going into the next stretch of games. They needed all the momentum they could muster as they were set to face three of the top five teams in the conference in six days: Western Carolina, Chattanooga and Davidson.
Unfortunately, with revenge on their minds, the Catamounts defeated the Lady Eagles on their home court, splitting the series 1-1 with GSU. Chattanooga and Davidson also downed the Blue and White, denying the Lady Eagles a victory over the Mocs and Wildcats on the season.
Hit by three tough losses to the league’s top teams, GSU’s confidence was waning.
“I think what happened, with that tough schedule, it went back to Western Carolina being that TV game,” said Cram. “To me, that’s when it all turned. Everything we’d been building for to get to that point - it wasn’t the fact that Western Carolina beat us; it was the way we got beat. I think we were shell-shocked.”
The team had little time to rest and regroup for the regular-season finale at Appalachian State, slated three days later. The loss to Davidson virtually locked GSU into the fourth seed for the upcoming SoCon tournament, win or lose versus the Mountaineers. As a result, the Lady Eagles had it in their minds to play with pride.
At the end of the game, four Lady Eagles scored in double-figures - Brown (21), Atwood (17), Jessica Geiger (10), Ogburn (10) - helping break the three-game skid, finish the regular season with a solid win, and enter the SoCon tournament with momentum.
In the tournament quarterfinal, the No. 4 seed Lady Eagles matched up with No. 5 seed College of Charleston. Georgia Southern jumped out of the gates with an intensity that equaled the kind displayed in their last meeting three weeks prior in Charleston. But with revenge on their minds, the Cougars avoided going 0-3 versus GSU on the season, and the Lady Eagles bowed out of the SoCon tournament early.
Georgia Southern finished the season with its best record in five years, going 17-13 overall and 13-5 in SoCon games. The 10 consecutive wins at Hanner had not occurred since a 19-game spell spanning from Feb. 1981 to Dec. 1982. Seniors Shawnda Atwood and Tiffany Brown capped off their four-year careers being named to the all-Southern Conference team by both the league coaches and media. Sophomore Jessica Geiger (Stone Mountain, Ga.) was the first Lady Eagle to have received SoCon student-athlete of the week honors after tallying a career-high 14 points in a home victory over Elon. The Blue and White also notched regular-season sweeps over six opponents: Appalachian State, College of Charleston, Elon, Furman, UNC Greensboro, and Wofford.
“We established ourselves again in the top half of the conference, the top three or four teams to beat,” said Cram. “We have a nucleus coming back next year with a lot of experience that we feel like we can stay there. And that’s what we’ve got to go work on hard during the spring.”
“I thought it was a successful year, certainly. When you finish in the top three, you’ve done something right.”
- Category: Women's Basketball
- Published on Wednesday, 02 April 2008 00:16