AUBURN, Ala. -- Jasmine James and the Georgia Lady Bulldogs were too much for a Middle Tennessee State team bearing the memory of a lost teammate on their right shoulders.
James scored eight of her 18 points over the final 5:40 and Georgia ended the Blue Raiders' tragedy scarred season with a 56-41 victory Sunday night in the opening round of the NCAA tournament.Porsha Phillips had 10 points and 14 rebounds for the sixth-seeded Lady Bulldogs (22-10), who are playing in their 17th consecutive tournament.The 11th-seeded Blue Raiders (23-8) couldn't capitalize on a rare at-large berth, and wore the pain of a difficult final month in the same spot on their jerseys. The players had patches bearing the No. 20 of slain teammate Tina Stewart, who was stabbed to death on March 2."With everything that we have been through, it took a little bit more than pride for us to continue playing, because no one around the country has been through what we have been through," Middle Tennessee guard Kortni Jones said. "It was hard, but I think pride had a lot to do with us going along and playing in the Sun Belt tournament and luckily getting an at-large bid."Stewart's freshman roommate is charged with first-degree murder in her death. The team came together to attend her funeral in Memphis, but couldn't pull out either game after her death."They're going to grow from it," Blue Raiders coach Rick Insell said. "That's what we talked about after the game. There are some great things ahead for this group. They're very young, they've got a passion for the game, and they're very willing."Anne Marie Lanning led the remaining team of 11 freshmen and sophomores with 15 points, while star freshman Ebony Rowe scored 10.Jasmine Hassell added 11 points on 5-of-6 shooting for Georgia, which advances to face Florida State on Tuesday night. The third-seeded Seminoles were a 76-46 winner over Samford.James made six straight free throws down the stretch to help keep Middle Tennessee from threatening. She played against Stewart starting in the ninth-grade in Memphis and knows many of the Blue Raiders.Georgia overcame 21 turnovers with a 48 percent shooting night, and limited Middle Tennessee to 28 percent from the floor. The Blue Raiders' previous season-low in points was 48 at Georgia Tech on Dec. 3."We played really, really hard on that [defensive] end," Lady Bulldogs coach Andy Landers said. "I just felt like our team was very committed to doing the things we worked on the last couple of days."I think they sensed that they were on the right page with what they were doing. All of a sudden, they weren't just doing the gameplan. They were making plays out of it."Middle Tennessee, which has become a postseason regular, is now 1-12 against Georgia with the lone win coming in their last meeting four years ago.The Blue Raiders cut a 19-point deficit down to 48-36 on KeKe Stewart's layup with 4:50 left. Georgia stopped that 9-2 run when James hit a long jumper to just beat the shot clock and end a nearly 4-minute field goal drought and Middle Tennessee's final rally.The Blue Raiders failed to score in the opening 7:26 of the second half, missing their first nine shots and watching a six-point halftime deficit balloon.Middle Tennessee's Rowe was scoreless for nearly 31 minutes but the Sun Belt freshman of the year finished strong. She still only had five rebounds, half her season average."With Ebony going scoreless in the first half, it put us in a bind," Jones said. "We are so used to her coming out and giving us as much as she can. I think that is why our offense struggled, because we are so used to her giving us points. But give credit to Georgia. They did a tremendous job of guarding her."It took the Lady Bulldogs a while to build a comfortable margin despite the Blue Raiders' poor shooting.Georgia scored 11 straight points before Lanning stopped the spurt with a 3-pointer with 1:28 left in the first half left to help Middle Tennessee close it to 26-20."We were just playing Georgia defense," Phillips said. "Very aggressive, very intense."