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Quotables From The Athens Regional

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Players, Coaches Preview Saturday’s Women’s NCAA Regional From Athens

NCAA Womens Basketball: SEC Conference Tournament-Missouri vs Georgia
Georgia opens the NCAA Tournament at 1:30 p.m. on Saturday against Mercer.
Jim Brown-USA TODAY Sports

Stegeman Coliseum will play host to the only NCAA Women’s Basketball Tournament Regional with each of the teams ranked on Saturday. Duke opens play against Belmont followed by Georgia and Mercer.

Here’s what head coaches and top players from each team had to say Friday about the first-round matchups.

Georgia

Head coach Joni Taylor

Opening comments

“Obviously the excitement of the tournament is here and we’re really proud not only to be back in the NCAA tournament but to be hosting it at home. It’s something that we’ve talked about for a long time and to honor our seniors, our former players, and everyone to be able to have this back in Athens, we’re extremely proud. With that understanding we have a tough challenge with Mercer. It’s a team that we play every single year in non-conference and we have a lot of respect for Susie [Gardner] and what she’s done there and continuing to do. Practice is leading up so tomorrow we know we’re going to have a handful.”

On if hosting an NCAA Tournament fulfilled the game plan mapped out for the Georgia program her first year...

”Yes, yes and yes. We definitely had a plan. The good thing that we tell our young ladies from the recruiting process to know is, we are not asking you to do anything that has not been done at the University of Georgia. We’ve been to the NCAA Tournament; we’ve been to Sweet 16s, Elite Eights, Final Fours. You walk down the hallway and you see trophies and statues and pictures of people who have given you the blueprint on how this is done. So yes, we had a plan as a staff, and that started in the recruiting process. Then it started with our current players who we knew would still be here last year and this year and help us get that done. We are exactly where we wanted to be, and we still have a lot to do.”

On former Georgia player and current Mercer head coach Susie Gardner’s return to Georgia...

”Number one, I have a lot of respect for Susie, I have for a long time. I think she does a tremendous job. Just the emotions that she has. She’s proud. She’s excited for the opportunity, and she’s going to have her players ready. For her to be able to not only get into the tournament but to do that here on what she probably considers her home floor, I think it’s a tribute to what she’s done and what she continues to do with her program.”

On Mercer...

”They’re the same great team they were in November. We were lucky to win at their place on the road. I think it’s the experience they have. They’re confident – not they weren’t confident in November. [Susie has] always had them playing confidently and at a very high level. You don’t win 27 games in a row if you don’t execute, you’re not locked in, you’re not focused and everyone’s not on the same game plan. So when you look at the seniors and juniors she’s had, they’ve been in this moment many times. Mercer has won the regular season conference the last two or three years, they just didn’t win their conference championship, which would allow them to go to the tournament. You’re looking at a team that just executes well, they know each other, they know where each individual’s going to be, and who needs to get the ball and win.”

On challenging junior forward Caliya Robinson in recent weeks...

”What else can you give? You do a great job; you do a lot of really good things. But there’s more for you to give, and how are we going to do that? Let’s talk about what that looks like – when obviously the game plan is to stop you every single night. The game plan is to get you in foul trouble so you’re on the bench. The game plan is to not allow you catch the basketball. What can you do to not allow that to happen? Let’s watch some film, which we’ve done all year long. Fortunately, not only Caliya, but we have a group of young ladies who want to get better. They want to learn and grow. She takes that message, and she goes out and tries to apply it.”

#33| Mackenzie Engram | Sr. | F

On playing at home with a different atmosphere…

“It does feel different because we had to go to the team check-in, we just can’t drive up here ourselves and walk in how we usually do. To see everything NCAA instead of Georgia, it’s definitely a different feel but we still understand that we are at home which is very comforting for the game tomorrow. We’re really excited for it.

#12 | Haley Clark| Sr. | G

On playing in the tournament at home versus on the road…

“I think for returners, such as me and Caliya [Robinson], it kind of takes away that nervous feeling since we’ve been there before. Obviously we didn’t host but we’ve been in the tournament before so it isn’t our first time and that takes away some of those nervous feelings. You’ve been there before, you’ve felt it before.”

On Mercer and their guards…

“Mercer coming in here with a very good coach and guard play, I think their guard play is what stands out the most. We have to lock-in and defend their guards as well as we did the first time. Having a challenge on the defensive end is always something exciting and that I take pride in. I know its something I can do for my team and be that person on my team. It’s super exciting because [Kahlia Lawrence] she has very quick pull up and jump shot so I’m up to the challenge and I’m looking forward to it.”

Mercer

Head coach Susie Gardner

Opening comments…

“First of all I’d like to introduce you guys to Mercer University women’s basketball history right here, first time NCAA tournament. A lot of people may know I played ball at Georgia and I was coach [Andy] Landers graduate assistant so I was here for six years and I was very naïve. Every year we went to the NCAA tournament and our goal was to win the national championship. When I got into coaching I thought, well, this is going to be easy. Let’s go to the NCAA tournament every year. As I grew up I realized it was a lot harder than it was here especially being a mid-major. I tell our players all the time, act like you’re been there. When we make a big basket, don’t go crazy, act like you’ve been here. I’ll tell you right now, I’ve been there and this is my 14th time but I’m so excited that these guys can finally experience wheat we’re experiencing. It’s been an amazing season and we’re just really thankful and happy to be in the NCAA tournament.”

On what the NCAA tournament means to her and her team...

”I’ve been here (in Athens) with different programs, teams and situations but you don’t get to coach girls like this everyday. And for those who have coached for a long time you realize you don’t often get so lucky with the group like I did. Those women that are sitting in that locker room started this journey as freshman and sophomores but now we’re here. We got so close last year in Asheville, North Carolina (SoCon Tournament) but we’ve let that push us. I have vowed to do everything in my power to have these girls experience the things I got to experience as a player.”

On her reaction to Mercer’s selection...

”The best part about selection Monday is the anticipation of seeing your name at some point. When I saw Duke versus Belmont in Athens I thought, ‘there is no way we will play Georgia again.’ I think that’s what really hit me was that we were going to be playing in Athens. I was so happy for our players and especially for our fans.”

On Georgia as a team...

”As an alumni I’ve always watched Georgia for fun but now I watch them as an opponent and what stands out to me is their defense. You watch them in the SEC Tournament against teams like Missouri and all these SEC teams struggle to put points up against them. They are quick, athletic and play hard. They get in your offense and really shut offenses down. We struggled to score against them so that will be our challenge. Along with their two big post players, Engram and Robinson, quite frankly they’re bigger than us.”

#24 | Kahlia Lawrence| Sr. | G

On playing Haley Clark…

“Georgia does a great job of trying to not let me catch the ball and defending me well. Haley [Clark] specifically is a great defender and I know that she’s going to play hard the entire game whenever she’s guarding me or anyone else on the floor. I know I have to go out there and do what I usually do but I know I may have to put in a little more effort in order to help my team win the game and do what I do on a nightly basis. But it’s going to be exciting, it’s going to be a great atmosphere, and I look forward to the challenge.”

On the UGA rematch…

“It’s definitely exciting to have the opportunity to get redemption against one of the teams we lost to. Georgia is obviously a great team, they obviously wouldn’t be in this situation if they weren’t but it would have been fun to play anyone else we would have been matched up with. This is definitely going to be more fun because we get an opportunity to beat a team that beat us and we’re looking forward to being on this great stage and beating this great team.”

#1 | Sydni Means |Sr. | G

On playing in the NCAA tournament close to home…

“To start with, I had no idea we were going to end up in Athens. All throughout the season I was looking at [the brackets] and I knew we had a chance of ending up in Raleigh or College Station so I was honestly prepared for that. Just to see that we’re able to play in Athens and bring a crowd here is incredible. Then to see coach Gardner’s reaction on top of that was a lot of fun. She was like a kid in the candy store on that day. To be able to play here and have family and friends come out to this game is really exciting for us.

On the UGA rematch…

“We played this team at the very beginning of the season and both teams have gotten better. UGA has gotten better and so have we. It’s almost like it’s a clean slate and like Kahlia [Lawrence] said, any team that would have popped up would have been perfect because we’re just so blessed to be here. Redemption would be nice but we’re just going to play hard.”

Duke

Head coach Joanne P. McCallie

Opening comments…

“We’re absolutely thrilled to be in Athens, the people here have already been amazing which is wonderful. The teams here are fantastic, we’re proud about the quality of the opponent and the challenge that we have in front of us and the challenge that all four teams have. These teams are very, very good. We’re excited to play. I also want to say congratulations to the University of Georgia for their hire coming up for men’s basketball. I’m aware of Tom Crean, I think he’s an absolutely amazing person and so on a side bar note I know that’s going on today and I want to say congratulations and we’re just excited and ready to play.

On the difficulty of this regional...

“Obviously, the whole tournament is a winner’s tournament. If you’re looking for anything easy, you’re looking in the wrong place. I love this region. All teams are ranked. All teams have done interesting things this year and shown that they can be successful under adverse circumstances and that type of thing. I think it’s a wonderful opportunity. It’s very challenging. There definitely should be butterflies and concern because of the level. We’re very, very fortunate. As you get older in this profession, you don’t really think much about seeds or anything. You do think about location because you want things to be available to your fans as possible. So for me, going into this tournament I just wanted to come to Athens so badly just because it was the closest and the opportunity, but I see that for Belmont as well in terms of fan support, you see that for Mercer and that just grows women’s basketball. There’s a lot of interest here. There will be a lot of great fans, a lot of great basketball and you really just can’t worry too much about outcome. You really have to dig in to what the process is to working and stopping teams. It’s never easy. We do feel fortified by playing in the ACC. The conference has been superb this year. If you look at... one thing that comes to mind for me is we’re one game out of third place in that conference and the two ahead of us are both No. 1 seeds [Notre Dame and Louisville]. It speaks well to the conference. Anyone can win a national title if you can certainly win the ACC, so there’s that dynamic. We feel well prepared, but that’s certainly not an automatic. You’ve got to get out there and play. Belmont is a very good team. They’re very well coached. They’ll have some great fans and they play very, very well together, as I’m sure I hope all teams do at this time of year because it’s that time of year to do that type of thing. We’re excited.”

#4 | Lexie Brown | R-Sr. | G

On preparing for Belmont…

“We watched a lot of film. [We’re] Preparing like we prepare for every other game. Defensively, our huge focus is to shut down their three ball. We know they’re great shooters and they don’t turn the ball over very much. We have to stay disciplined and rebounding has also been a huge focus for us. They’re a super talented team and we’re really excited to play them, it’s going to be a really fun game.”

#23 | Rebecca Greenwell| R-Sr. | G

On playing in the NCAA tournament as a senior…

“It’s bittersweet being our last run at it is sad obviously. We’re excited to get out there and make a run. We have a tough first game coming up against Belmont, they’re a great team but it’s been two weeks since we played and we’re ready to get out there.”

Belmont

Head coach Bart Brooks

Opening comments…

It’s a pleasure to be here. Athens has been a great host – the University of Georgia has done a great job so far, and we’re excited to play in a place that’s close so our fans can hopefully get here and support us in a great opportunity. Duke is a really good basketball team, and we’re excited for the challenge.”

On being aware of Duke’s leadership and defensive availability…

“We talked a lot this morning, yesterday, and all week about throwing the ball to the blue team – Duke is wearing white. Their length, their quickness and their athleticism. Lexie Brown is one of the best defenders as in anticipation, getting in passing lanes. She is really good guard when it comes to stealing the basketball. It is something we’ve talked about all year. For us to win these type of games we can’t give them easy baskets and easy baskets come from our turnovers or taking shots that we have no chance to make. Those usually turn into layups for these guys (Duke). That is a huge key for us and that is something we have to be really sharp about and it has to be a 40 minute deal, because if you relax for a minute that could be a run that these guys go on.

On Duke...

”The first thing when you watch film is that they’re huge. They have really big kids at all positions, and they’re really long, they’re really athletic. So it’s been something we’ve been working on all week. It’s going to be an adjustment against the length they bring to the game and we talked about it all year. It really hasn’t changed. We have to defend, we have to rebound to have a chance and I think that’s really true for this one too.”

On this season’s 20-game winning streak...

”I guess I’m still impressed by the guys [who were] sitting next to me and there’s a handful of leaders in our locker too. The focus that they brought to every practice, it started with our first workouts in the summer. It’s something that just has continued throughout the year. They approach everyday like it matters. They focus whether it’s a weights session, a film session, a practice session, or if it’s a game. They bring their toughness and their competitiveness into everything that they’ve done. It’s really impressive to see them consistently compete no matter who we’re playing. You can look at some of the scores and think we just rolled through them, we didn’t roll through anything. Every single game we played was tough, it was competitive, and it’s just a credit to our team and our leadership that they had the toughness to really show up everyday and play at a really high level every single day.”

#23 | Kylee Smith | Sr. | G

On being from Alpharetta, Georgia and playing against friend Lexie Brown of Duke…

”I am so happy to be home. I grew up going to camps here at the University of Georgia. A lot of my friends from high school went to UGA, so it’s great to be back in Athens and close to home. I’m super excited that we’re going to have a great fan base, not only because we’re close to Nashville, but myself as well as another teammate [freshman Allison Luly] is from Alpharetta. So, being my last year too, it’s really something special to get to play in front of a home crowd. Lexie, she’s one of my great friends. We started playing AAU back in eighth grade together. I’ve known her for awhile; we’ve kept in touch. I think it’s just really special. It’s not everyday you get to play in the NCAA tournament versus your best friend. We’re both super competitive; we both love basketball. I think it’s going to be a fun experience.”

#33 | Darby Maggard | Jr. | G

On how recent NCAA tournament appearances have helped build the program…

“I think that it’s a great opportunity. We have a really special team. This year’s been a whole lot of fun. I think that it just builds the program for the future. We have a great coaching staff. He [Belmont head coach Bart Brooks] comes in every single day ready to work and he wants to make this place the best that it can possibly be. We want to help him do that every day.”