SPOKANE, Wash. — Georgia relied on its defense throughout the regular season. No reason for the first game of the NCAA Tournament to be any different.
Jasmine Hassell scored 16 points, Shacobia Barbee added 13 and fourth-seeded Georgia used a big run midway through the second half to pull away from Montana for a 70-50 win on Saturday.
Jasmine James added 11 points for the Lady Bulldogs (26-6), who will face No. 5 seed Iowa State in the second round on Monday night.
“It’s just focus and holding each other accountable,” James said. “Every time out, at every four minutes, it’s just think, ‘OK, we go back out this four minutes, let’s focus on defense, let’s make sure the pressure is there.’”
Georgia led 38-36 with 15 minutes remaining before going on a 21-6 run to grab control and earn a bit of redemption after being upset by Marist in the first round a year ago. But the Lady Bulldogs said they didn’t talk about what happened in last year’s tournament.
“Last year wasn’t brought up. And personally when it came to that time I didn’t think about it,” Hassell said. “I just knew that our opportunity is now and it’s time to go and there’s no reason to think about last year. Last year is in the past. It’s time to move on. We are in a new tournament, new team.”
The matchup featured two of the most successful coaches in women’s college basketball. Montana’s Robin Selvig and Georgia’s Andy Landers had combined for 1,618 wins at their respective schools coming into Saturday’s game and Selvig was looking for an upset that would move him within one victory of joining Landers in the 800-win club.
That upset bid was tossed aside by Georgia’s impressive second-half charge, mostly thanks to the Lady Bulldogs’ defense. Georgia entered the tournament among the best in the country giving up just 53.3 points per game during the regular season.
The Lady Bulldogs held Montana to just two field goals in a 12-minute span. Montana’s drought was finally broken when Hannah Doran hit a 3-pointer with 2:35 left.
Montana became the 15th team to score 50 points or less against the Lady Bulldogs this season.
Landers’ goal was to pressure Montana from the start in the hope it would eventually wear down, and he hoped the defense would generate some easy baskets for the Lady Bulldogs.
It all clicked early in the second half.
“I was really pleased with the way our basketball team defended from the beginning of the game to the end of the game and the desired effect of that defense probably set in somewhere around the 13-minute mark there in the second half,” Landers said. “I feel like we started to benefit from the playing it the way we played it.”
Torry Hill led 13th-seeded Montana (24-8) with 11 points. But on a night the Lady Griz needed to hit all their open looks, they shot just 29 percent and committed 20 turnovers.
“We didn’t convert as well as they did, we didn’t score off the steals, we didn’t score off of their turnovers and that was a huge thing for us,” Montana’s Alyssa Smith said. “It’s hard to come back against a team like that, especially when we do dig ourselves a hole. We have to be able to convert, which we weren’t able to do tonight.”
Georgia was stunned when it was knocked out of the tournament in the first round a year ago and vowed it wouldn’t overlook its opening opponent. Still, it was a struggle to shake the pesky champions of the Big Sky Conference, who were trying for their first NCAA win since 1995.
The Lady Griz even had a chance to take the lead early in the second half.
Smith hit a 3 to open the second half as Montana closed to 32-28, the closest it had been since it was 8-4. After Hassell split a pair of free throws, Katie Baker hit a 17-footer and the Lady Griz were within three. Baker then split a pair of free throws and Georgia’s lead was just 33-31.
Griffin answered with a corner 3-pointer and Barbee scored on a drive to push the lead back to seven, but Baker scored and Jordan Sullivan hit a 3. Montana committed a turnover with a chance to pull even or take the lead.
That proved to be as close as the Lady Griz would get. Following a timeout, Georgia ran off 13 of the next 17 points to take a 51-40 lead with 9:10 remaining. Anne Marie Armstrong hit a corner 3-pointer, Erika Ford scored off a steal and Tamika Willis scored in the lane to extend the lead to eight. James then hit a pair of short jumpers and Willis scored underneath to run the advantage to double digits.
‘’As the game wore on, our quickness on the defense end started to separate us from them,” Landers said.