ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. - The Georgia women's basketball program has been one of the measuring sticks other teams have used to gauge their success for the past 20 years.
For the past six seasons, Duke has made strides to where it is now mentioned in the same breath with the powers of the women's game.
Today, No. 5 Georgia and No. 1 Duke will face off (9 p.m., ESPN) in the Sweet 16 of the Midwest Regional in the NCAA Women's Tournament to see which team can keep alive its dream of getting to the Final Four in Atlanta.
"Duke is one of the best in the nation, and some people consider them the best," junior center Christi Thomas said. "We just have to go out and play with the same focus that we do every other game and play hard and do what we know we can do."
On paper, Duke (33-1) appears to have a big advantage. Duke, which was ranked No. 2 in the final Associated Press Top 25 poll, has won 13 consecutive games and has a deep bench. The Blue Devils also have Alana Beard, arguably the best player in women's basketball, and a confidence that says there is no doubt they will be in Atlanta next weekend.
But Georgia (21-9) has battled through injuries, deaths in its family and suspensions to get here, and it doesn't want things to end.
"I think the nothing to lose statement is not accurate. We have everything to lose," Georgia senior guard Mary Beth Lycett said. "The Sweet 16 has not been our goal this year. We still have things to play for, and I don't think we have proven we are a great team yet. I think by beating Duke we can do that."
To accomplish something only Connecticut (77-65 on Feb. 1) has done this season, Georgia might have to play a near-perfect game. The trouble isthe Lady Bulldogs might be without freshman guard Sherill Baker, who injured her right shoulder Monday against Rutgers and hasn't practiced the past four days. Baker didn't practice in the team's one-hour open session Friday morning, and Georgia coach Andy Landers said she would be re-evaluated during the afternoon practice.
"I really don't know (what her status is)," Landers said. "I don't anticipate her doing very much, but later today we'll see how loose she is, how sore she is, what the trainers say, what the doctors say and we'll go from there."
If Baker doesn't play, Georgia will be down to eight players, and Ebony Felder will be playing in just her third game since returning from a knee injury she suffered Dec. 20.
But injuries and a short bench haven't fazed the Lady Bulldogs down the stretch, and Duke coach Gail Goestenkors said Georgia has played its "best basketball" since Kara Braxton's season-ending suspension Feb. 19.
"I told Andy yesterday that I feel like they have been through the same adversity, a different form than we went through last year," said Goestenkors, referringto the Blue Devils' trip to the Final Four last year when they had eight players. "Sometimes adversity really draws a team closer together, and that is what I think it has done for Georgia."
Unfortunately for Georgia, Beard is one of Duke's returning players. Like last year, Beard leads the Blue Devils in scoring (21.9 points per game), field goal percentage (53.7) and steals (99).
"She is an unbelievable player," Landers said. "There isn't anything on the floor that she can't do."
But Beard isn't a one-woman show. Junior center Iciss Tillis earned MVP honors at the Atlantic Coast Conference Tournament to help the Blue Devils win their record fourth consecutive title.
All those honors and titles don't matter to Georgia, because it still has its mind set on reaching Atlanta.
"We started last year working on Atlanta, and it is something that all of us made a goal," Thomas said. "It is something we think about every day we step on the floor. We have a goal if we want to be one of the best we have to make it to Atlanta."