MARIETTA, Ga. -- The rivalry is definitely back -- if it ever left.
The first regularly scheduled meeting between Georgia and Georgia Tech in women's basketball since November 1989 went off as well as anyone could have asked Monday afternoon at the Cobb County Civic Center. The standing-room-only crowd of 2,932 that packed the high school gym witnessed not only a renewal of the long-dormant series, but also an unexpectedly close game, as No. 5 Georgia held off the Yellow Jackets for an 88-82 win.
"You can say that the first game back has been a success," said Georgia coach Andy Landers, who had been pushing his counterpart, Agnus Berenato, to resume the series she decided to halt it after the 1989-90 season.
For a while, it looked as if the game might go down in history for a different reason.
The Yellow Jackets (9-8) entered the Martin Luther King Day contest 0-20 all-time against the Lady Bulldogs, but Tech jumped out to a 15-5 lead early. Georgia (16-1) finally settled down and reclaimed the lead, eventually shooting 57.6 percent for the half.
Freshman center Tawana McDonald played a major role in Georgia's success from the floor. She hit four of five shots from the field before halftime, leading the team with 11 points at the break. She ended up playing a career-high 31 minutes in her most complete effort thus far, with 18 points, nine rebounds and five blocked shots.
As McDonald and the Lady Bulldogs built their halftime lead to seven points, it seemed everyone expected Georgia to deliver the knockout quickly in the second half.
But it never came. Tech, without a true post player, outworked the much bigger Lady Bulldogs all day on the glass and ended up with a 45-40 rebounding edge. Tech's Regina Tate had 18 boards by herself, and plenty of her 18 points came on putbacks.
The Yellow Jackets' work inside, plus the outside shooting of Danielle Donehew, who hit six 3-pointers in the game and finished with 20 points, kept Georgia from pulling away.
"It was really important for me to at least be able to take those shots, so we could open up the inside more," said Donehew. "We have an outside and an inside threat to keep the defense guessing, and we really tried to do that."
A late 14-3 run by the Yellow Jackets, capped by Donehew's final trey, brought Tech within three points of Georgia with 26 seconds left, but that was Tech's final field goal. The Jackets appeared confused offensively on their final two possessions, and Georgia made three of four free throws in the closing seconds to seal a tough win.
The final margin was the second-closest in series history; the Lady Bulldogs won 78-77 at Tech in 1980, Landers' first year as coach. But Landers said he had no problem with his team's performance, especially coming off a big SEC win over Auburn less than 24 hours before.
"We haven't had very many close games with these guys," he said. "I think it helps it be a good rivalry that we envision it being. I don't mind close games, I don't think our players mind close games -- as long as we win 'em."
Considering the history of the series and Tech's record entering the game, the final outcome could at least be considered a step in the right direction for the Jackets. But Berenato insisted her team wasn't satisfied with the outcome.
"We came into the game to win, not to be close," she said. "So don't ask me about a moral victory. I think we believed sincerely that we could have an upset today, and we had a gameplan, and I think the team executed it to perfection.
"Were we nervous? We were. But at the same time, as crazy as it sounds, in my heart and my soul, I thought we could win the game. And did I think it was possible for us to lose by 40? Absolutely."
That the Jackets didn't probably ensured the continued life of the series.
Though the Civic Center is far from a big-time college basketball setting -- "All the kids probably thought they were back in high school," said Landers -- its cozy confines did create a feeling that would have been missing if the same number of people had attended a game at Alexander Memorial Coliseum or Stegeman Coliseum.
"I think the reason we played it at Cobb Civic Center was so that we would have the atmosphere like it was," said Berenato. "It was important for us to sell out today, and it was a sellout."
So will the game return to Marietta next year as well?
"I don't know," said Landers. "I just know we're playing."
And after all this time, that's enough.
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