Armstrong's leadership rallies Bulldogs past Cyclones

March 26, 2013 - 7:18am
Georgia senior Anne Marie Armstrong spots up for the three pointer (File photo by Kelly Kline)

Georgia senior Anne Marie Armstrong spots up for the three pointer (File photo by Kelly Kline)

Georgia 65, Iowa State 60

SPOKANE, Wash. -- With their season on the brink in the face of a rip-roaring 19-1 Iowa State surge that erased a 14-point Georgia lead and put the Cyclones up 56-52 with 2 minutes and 32 seconds to play in Monday night’s NCAA tournament second round game at the McCarthey Athletic Center, Bulldogs senior center Anne Marie Armstrong calmly gathered her teammates together.

“In the huddle, she was like, ‘Guys, this can’t be our last game,’” said Georgia senior forward Jasmine Hassell. “Of course, she’s a senior, and just to see her come out and give it her all was amazing. I don’t think there was ever a point where we were worried.”

After freshman sensation Shacobia Barbee hit a three-pointer with 2:04 remaining to bring the Bulldogs to within a point, Armstrong took over.

She stole the ball on the defensive end, then hit a three-pointer to put Georgia up by two (58-56). After Iowa State junior Hallie Christofferson responded with a three of her own, Barbee launched a pass for Armstrong over the top of Cyclones defense.

Armstrong made a sensational catch, and with her momentum taking her out of bounds under the basket, she collected her feet, turned her body and made a dexterous reverse lay up to give the Bulldogs a 60-59 lead with just under a minute left. Georgia would not trail again.

On the ensuing possession, Cyclones point guard Nikki Moody cut into the lane and missed a short jump shot. Iowa State senior center Anna Prins leaped for the rebound, but Armstrong tied her up. Possession: Georgia.

The third-seeded Bulldogs hit their free throws, and won 65-60 over the No. 5 seed Cyclones to advance to the Sweet 16.

Armstrong finished with 13 points (5-of-13 FG, 3-of-8 from three-point), five rebounds, two assists, one block, one steal and a whole lot of plays that don’t show up in a box score, but remain etched in the minds of her teammates and coach.

“I think Anne Marie was huge today,” said Jasmine James, the Bulldogs’ senior point guard. “She made some great plays and knocked down some huge shots that allowed us to gain momentum as well as keep momentum. Whenever we really needed something, I felt like it was either her or Cobi (Barbee, who scored a game-high 20 points). They were both huge tonight.”

First-team All-SEC a season ago, when she averaged 11.5 points, 6.2 rebounds and a sliver under three assists per game, Armstrong has struggled with a nagging ankle sprain for much of this season.

Reduced to cardio workouts and shooting during practice — if she played on it for just 20 or 30 minutes, it would swell up, she said — Armstrong struggled to recreate her impressive production from ’11-12. (She entered Monday night’s match up averaging 6.9 points and 4.9 rebounds on just 33.6 percent shooting. She’d hit just 14 three-pointers all season.)

Armstrong admits it was frustrating dealing with the balky ankle, but she feels she is back to 100 percent now. “I think the biggest part is just the mental aspect and not being able to do things the way that I had the year before,” said Armstrong. “Now, I’m finally getting back in the groove.”

“It’s definitely great to see her play as well as she did tonight,” said James. “I feel like she’s been battling with her ankle injury all year and now here it is — that’s the Anne Marie we know, and it was so great to see her back out there like that.”

When she’s healthy, she’s one of the better forwards in women’s college basketball.

After Armstrong dismantled Furman during a December game last season, finishing with 19 points, seven rebounds, two assists, four steals and three blocks, Georgia head coach Andy Landers said that at times her ability to see the floor reminded him of Larry Bird.

Even at her height (6’2”), Armstrong combined the skills of a point guard and a forward. Like Bird, the Boston Celtic legend, her cerebral approach augments her impact.

During Sunday’s press conference ahead of the match up with the fifth-seeded Cyclones, Landers picked up on a seemingly innocuous point Armstrong had made about Prins’s ability to read passing situations in Iowa State’s offensive sets. It’s almost as if the reads come naturally at this point, like a quarterback audibling a play at the line of scrimmage.

“She’s really smart,” said Landers. “As a player, she’s really easy for me to communicate with, because she gets me. You say something one time, and she’s good to go with it. Get down to the last three minutes [tonight] — and what does Anne Marie do? Reverse the layup, drop a three.”

When Hassell struggled to get going on Monday night (the forward missed her first six shots and was held scoreless in the first half by Prins’s defense), Armstrong began driving into the lane.

That forced Prins to cheat off of Hassell and collapse on Armstrong. Though she didn’t convert her runners on these drives, one of them allowed Hassell to follow the missed shot for an unencumbered offensive rebound and putback with 13:03 left to play — a gift she hadn’t received all game.

Confidence restored, Hassell followed up with a 15-foot jumper for her next points and finished with seven in the second half.

Georgia’s offense often predicates upon four-out sets, where Armstrong jumps out to the perimeter to join the other three Georgia guards, leaving a post player to navigate the key. With the ball in her hands, Armstrong’s ability to drive, pass or shoot makes her a nightmare for the opposing defense.

“Growing up, I was little, so I played the point [guard position],” Armstrong said. “I didn’t grow ‘til later — so I can’t really handle the ball really great now, but just my ability to see the floor — and I can see the court well — makes it easy for me to read what defenses are doing and what kind of pass to make.”

Landers had told his team heading into Monday night’s game that he didn’t mind giving up two-point baskets against Iowa State. He just wanted them to contest shots in the paint — which Armstrong did each time she faced Cyclones senior center Anna Prins.

Armstrong conceded five inches to the 6’7” Prins, who finished with 23 points on 10-of-17 shooting. She picked up four fouls guarding her, but she contested every one of Prins’s shots, Landers noted afterward.

Armstrong frequently helped double-team Cyclones forwards Chelsea Poppens and Christoffersson, and raced to close out on sharp-shooting guard Brynn Williamson on the perimeter.

Two days after she’d torched Gonzaga for 17 points on 5-of-12 shooting from three, Williamson went 0-of-6 from deep against Georgia. Not once did she get a clean look.

With the Bulldogs up 63-60, and seconds away from closing out the victory on Monday night, Armstrong inbounded the ball underneath her own basket.

Landers called for a play that the Bulldogs had used frequently during this season, where James shirks her defender and shoots upcourt to receive a football pass from Armstrong.

As she read the defense, Armstrong noticed that Cyclones forward Hallie Christofferson was cheating off of Hassell, and hovering near James. As Landers shouted the play, Armstrong looked his way and gave a quick nixing motion with her right hand.

“But as soon as [Christofferson] went back [to Hassell,] me and J.J. (Jasmine James) made eye contact, and we run that play all season when we’re getting pressured, so James got the lay up to finish it off,” Armstrong said.

Armstrong looks to drive to the basket during the SEC tournament (File photo by Kelly Kline)

Back when these Georgia seniors were freshmen, they decided that they wanted to instill change in the program. They wanted to return it to its winning ways. (Ahead of the seniors’ debut ’09-10 season, Georgia had failed to reach the Sweet 16 in the previous two NCAA tournaments.)

But following a listless late-January loss to Texas A&M and a poor practice in the following days, Landers locked the gym, intending to send a message.

The team called a meeting soon after, and put everything on the table. They brought up issues they’d had on the court, and areas they felt they could each of them could improve upon.

“We talked things through … [and voiced] frustrations we had on the court,” said Armstrong. “I think that meeting just brought us all together and got us all on the same page. We’re all here for the same reason at the end of the day. It’s not for individual accomplishments or anything. We all have the same goals, and we want to reach the Final Four.”

“It got better after that,” Landers said. “The message was received.”

So even though Armstrong admitted she was worried when Iowa State made that late run to reclaim the lead, she remembered what Landers had told the team before the game. She hearkened back to the trust she felt in her teammates.

“Coach said, ‘They’re a good team, they’re going to make runs, keep your head up, every team right now is good,’” said Armstrong. We just kept that mentality that ‘We got it, we’ve been scoring and D’ing them up to this point,’ so we just kept that positive attitude.”

On a night where the Bulldogs punched their ticket to the 20th Sweet 16 of Landers’s illustrious 34-year career — the third-best tally in NCAA history, according to the NCAA moderator — the seniors remembered what they’d set out to do.

They kept their nerve, maintained their focus, and played hard-nosed, unselfish Georgia basketball. They earned the right to participate in their third Sweet 16 in four years.

Georgia now heads to the Spokane Regional — which will take place a short drive across town from Gonzaga University at the Spokane Arena. They will face the winner of the Stanford-Michigan game on March 30.