Weekend games provide momentum
By Seth Traub, Special to CNNSI.com
With only one month until the beginning of Southeastern Conference play, SEC teams are facing the nation's best this weekend as five ranked teams play in three season-measuring games.
No. 7 Georgia and Florida face opponents in revenge games, and No. 2 Tennessee looks to remain undefeated in its first game against a ranked team.
The game of the week is the matchup between Georgia and No. 5 Rutgers as they head to Orlando, Fla. to play the second game of the Honda Elite 4 Classic.
Georgia has gotten off to a rough start, going 3-2, losing to No. 1 Connecticut and No. 4 Notre Dame while using three different starting lineups to spark team chemistry.
This game is a rematch of last season's NCAA Tournament West Regional final won by the Scarlet Knights 59-51 in Portland, Ore. This will be Georgia's third time in four weeks on ESPN.
Georgia coach Andy Landers said although his team has gotten off to a slow start this game will be competitive and hard fought.
"We are going to have to be smart and disciplined in our attack of defensive matchups," Landers said. "We need to rebound well and continue to defend well."
Georgia's schedule after the Rutgers game features four unranked teams until playing No. 24 Illinois on Jan. 4. This game is essential to Georgia's mindset heading into an easier part of their schedule.
Florida (5-0) finished November undefeated for the first time in five years. In 1995 they went 9-0. After playing four of their first five games on the road, the Gators host No. 11 Penn State in a rematch of last year's game at the Bryce Jordan Center in State College, Pa. The Nittany Lions dominated Florida in the 91-67 Penn State win.
In her first game against a ranked opponent this season, Florida coach Carol Ross said she will use last year as a learning experience but both teams have a different look.
"We were humiliated last year on national TV, but these are two different teams in two different seasons," Ross said. "They are obviously one of the best teams in the nation and this is a big, big game. This is a situation where we can measure where we are as a team."
The Gators are playing every game this season to prove to the NCAA it deserves to be in the tournament in March after being snubbed last year -- on national television no less, as the Gators' disappointment was featured live on ESPN's selection show.
With the play of Brandi McCain , who is averaging 25 points a game, and promising start of freshman Vanessa Hayden , a win here would be a strong point for Florida being in the top 25 for the first time since January 1999.
Tennessee (4-0) leads the SEC once again as it hosts No. 18 Wisconsin, in a game that could show Tennessee is ready to make a run at Connecticut.
"We have worked hard to become a balanced offensive team. I think that we learned a valuable lesson from the loss in the title game last year from UConn," Vols coach Pat Summit said.
Summit said she is expecting a challenging game and her posts are going to need to step up as they will be challenged up and down the court. Summit said she prepares her team better for games with unfamiliar opponents in order to prevent surprises.
"I take a more serious approach to teams that are not familiar to our players," Summit said. "We watch more tape of those opponents and we talk to our personnel and what to expect.
"That has worked favorably for us, but after a big win, you have to make sure that the players treat each game like it is the most important game."
Young, talented and ready to play
Just when the experience of the Southeastern Conference is heralded, it is also showing its depth as freshmen are making contributions up and down the standings.
Mississippi State freshman Jessica Carter led her team against Cal State-Northridge with 14 points, including four three-pointers.
Bulldog coach Sharon Fanning said Carter is essential to her young team's success.
"We are backing up with four freshman and a sophomore so we have to have it," Fanning said. "We have be mentally tough with new players stepping into new positions. We need her to contribute for our team to be successful."
Florida freshman Vanessa Hayden is averaging a double-double with more than 10 rebounds and 10 points a game. She leads the SEC in rebounding ahead of her teammate, defending SEC rebounding champ Naomi Mobley .
"You always hope your young players play well, but you cannot expect it," Ross said.
Hayden is key off the bench for the Gators, backing up senior Tamara Stocks and Mobley.
Landers' Georgia squad is getting impressive play from freshman Christi Thomas, who he said is poised when on the court and has been productive in her minutes.
"We anticipated her doing well but not her being such a critical player so early in her career," Landers said
Kentucky (1-2), who does not have many seniors to learn from, has freshman Sese Helm contributing. She scored a career-high 22 points in Kentucky's consolation game loss to Houston in the Pepperdine Classic. Helm averages 14 points on 52 percent shooting in 23 minutes per game.
Tennessee freshmen Ashley Robinson, Tasha Butts and Courtney McDaniel add to the Vols' deep and talented roster. Robinson started two games this year and averages almost nine points a game in 20-plus minutes per game.
"Ashley is in the position to be a consistent starter, Tasha is our first substitution from the wing off the bench, and Courtney is also earning some good minutes for us and played well in Maui. She will be a great role-player for us as she adjusts to the tempo of the game," Summit said.
"Our freshman class is helping us to improve our offense, which was one of our main issues. They are making us a much better team and we can rotate them in and out more often, similar to the UConn style. They bring us not only energy, but also speed, execution and scoring."
Player of the WeekNo. 16 Mississippi State's LaToya Thomas was named SEC player of the week after setting a school record for points in a game with 48 against Memphis. She was only three points shy of the SEC record while earning her third consecutive tournament MVP title at the Southwest Airlines Lobo Shootout.
A 6-2 forward from Greenville, Miss., Thomas has scored in double digits in 36 consecutive games, every game she has played as a Bulldog, and is currently 23rd on MSU's all-time scoring chart with 760.
Fanning said Thomas, compared to last year, has improved as an athlete and is becoming the leader Fanning needs her to be.
"LaToya is stronger, understands the game and the level of play she needs to be at better," Fanning said. "She is focusing on being a better total player, being more physical and a leader on the court."
Thomas has played a total of 111 minutes this season and scored 112 points, an average of 28 per game.
In the Bulldog's 90-48 win over the Southern Jaguars on Tuesday night, Thomas scored 24 and grabbed eight rebounds.
Seth Traub is a reporter for the Independent Florida Alligator, the student paper that serves the University of Florida.