Andy and the Jasmines — a much more modern trio than the doo-wop name suggests — are reaching the end of their Lady Bulldogs Reclamation Tour.
The 11th-ranked Georgia women’s basketball team closes its regular season Sunday afternoon at Stegeman Coliseum. It will seek a 24th victory and attempt to cleanse itself of Thursday’s loss at Mississippi State in which it scored a season-low 38 points. The Lady Bulldogs require re-energizing in advance of tournament season.
Fans coming to this one may want to pack a light dinner as well as a lunch, for there are seven players to honor on Senior Day.
Experience is the core strength of Andy Landers’ latest team. The two Jasmines, Hassell and James, have become the headliners of a large senior class programmed from Day 1 to rebuild and renew.
Both Tennessee high schoolers, friends who came to Georgia as an unmatched set, the 6-foot-2 Jasmine Hassell and 5-9 Jasmine James had barely unpacked their bags in the summer of 2009 before Landers began working on them.
The 2008-09 season had been bitter medicine. For the first time since 1981, the Lady Bulldogs went an entire season unranked. Following a first-round exit from the NCAA tournament, Landers needed a course-changing recruiting class.
“We knew that they were important; we knew we had to have a class like that class. If not, we were going to slip. We had lost our way a little bit,” he said.
Landers would meet his new players for breakfast four mornings a week that summer, for eggs, biscuits and indoctrination. The team’s media guide had become their college primer. Each morning, the coach would assign the Jasmines a little homework, to look up some new historical tidbit about the victories and the players that had come before them and report back with their findings the next morning.
“Young people when they come here look at it on the surface — oh, it’s a great program, they win. They don’t look at it a lot deeper than that. What does that mean?” Landers said.
“When they came back after looking up those answers they were a little bit in awe. The point of it was, let’s get educated. This is what we’re supposed to be. This is who you’re going to become. This is where you’re going to take us.”
When the real physical part of the process began, Hassell, the Bulldogs’ wide-shouldered forward, was unprepared. While her friend James had run an up-tempo offense in high school back in Memphis, Hassell’s bunch in Lebanon was of more plodding, half-court bent. She planted herself in the low post on her own schedule.
With Landers supplying the not-so-gentle motivation, Hassell put in so much extra cardio work that after graduation she probably should endow a treadmill.
“During that time, like we were in two different places,” James said. “She was going through the struggle with Coach, and I was playing, so everything was OK with me. We’d go back to the dorm and talk about staying focused, about not letting it beat you down. Now in our senior year, we laugh and joke about it because she can see where it made her better.”
From back home, Hassell got additional push. Her mother, Gail, was the career scoring leader at Belmont when she graduated nearly 30 years ago. “She’d say, ‘Jasmine, if I could do it (the running), you can do it,” Hassell said.
Flash to a more aerobically fit present.
Hassell said she no longer is tethered to the treadmill. Hardly uses it at all, she said.
“She’s lying,” Landers said. “She doesn’t HAVE to get on the treadmill, that’s what she meant. In fact, it’s rare when a week goes by when she doesn’t go down and do an extra workout.”
Here, the coach paused for dramatic effect before declaring victory in the war of wills: “So, I won.”
Hassell has spent this season staying just ahead of James in the team scoring race (12.5 points per game to 11). She has owned the boards, averaging 6.4 rebounds per game. Until Thursday night, Hassell was reserving her best basketball for the push to March, averaging a double-double (17.2 points, 10.2 rebounds) in the five games leading to the trip to Starkville.
The Jasmines’ class made an immediate impact, as the Lady Bulldogs returned to the rankings and advanced to the NCAA tournament’s Sweet 16 during their freshman season. They made it that far again the following season. They’d like to explore a higher rung or two on the tournament ladder before they’re done, if only to check out the view.
“I’ve learned a lot, done what I needed to do, and now I need to finish it, leave a mark,” said Hassell, speaking for her class.
“We have a deep bench. We’re balanced. We play defense. I really, truly believe we’re something special,” she said.
Proving that is the challenge. First there’s the conference tournament, which begins preliminary play Wednesday — the top four seeds don’t step foot on the Gwinnett Arena floor for the SEC tournament until Friday. There are five SEC teams in the top 15, and, with none of those assuming the role of runaway favorite, the air will be thick with possibility. “The conference is up for grabs,” Landers said.
And then comes the grand gala, the NCAAs, where the power elite of Baylor, Notre Dame and UConn are, Landers said, “clearly a notch above the rest.” That looms as Carnegie Hall for Andy and the Jasmines.
SEC WOMEN’S BASKETBALL TOURNAMENT
Where: Gwinnett Arena
When: Wednesday-Sunday. Lower seeds begin play Wednesday and Thursday. Top four seeds have a bye into Friday.
Teams to watch: Five of the nation’s top 15 ranked teams are from the SEC. Those are Tennessee (No. 8), Kentucky (10), Georgia (11), Texas A&M (13) and South Carolina (14). The Lady Vols have won the past three SEC championships, six of the past eight and 16 overall in the 33-year history of the event. Vanderbilt has the next most titles, six. Georgia and Auburn have four apiece.