In the time since the Georgia women’s basketball team – or any college basketball team for that matter – last played, much has transpired across the country, and Lady Bulldogs coach Joni Taylor is determined that her players will be leaders on the court and in the community.
In adopting the team motto of “Show Up,” Taylor has charged her team to respond thoughtfully in light of a year that has included the COVID pandemic, the deaths of African-Americans at the hands of police officers and the needs of the disenfranchised in Athens-Clarke County.
“Considering the world we’re living in now, with a health crisis going on, it’s also time to show up as a citizen, as an advocate, as a role model, as an ally and as a daughter,” said Taylor, now in her sixth season leading Georgia. “Those words really epitomize not only what we want to do on the basketball court, but what we want to do in the city of Athens and our community.”
The Lady Bulldogs finished last season at 17-14 (with a 7-9 SEC record) and return four seniors and several other experienced players. Returning to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since the 2017-18 season is a key goal and Georgia will have to maintain a high degree of consistency to survive the rigors of conference play this winter.
“It’s about showing up every day and doing what’s asked of us, and even more,” said point guard Gabby Connally, one of Georgia’s quartet of seniors, on finding more consistency. “It’s doing the little things right in practice over and over again.”
Here’s five things to know about the Lady Bulldogs:
Quite a class: Two seasons ago, Georgia had the youngest team in the country. Now the Lady Bulldogs tout four seniors who have basically seen it all – Connally (12.6 points, 3.3 rebounds per game), Jenna Staiti (11.9 ppg, 6.6 rpg), Maya Caldwell (9.8 ppg, 3.7 rpg) and Que Morrison (7.7 ppg, 4.4 rpg) – and four other players who averaged close to 11 minutes per outing.
With junior Mikayla Combs — a UConn transfer who sat out last season — and freshmen Sarah Ashley Barker and Zoesha Smith also in the mix, it’s likely Taylor will do a lot of substituting, especially early on, as players round back into game shape, although Taylor said she was pleased with the team’s conditioning when they returned to Athens.
“There will be a lot of subbing from everybody,” said Taylor. “We have the personnel to do it.”
Jenna, they got your number: One of the true highlights of the 2019-20 season was the blossoming of Staiti, who came on strong in early February, averaging 19.7 points and 9.4 rebounds in Georgia’s last nine games. Although Staiti had provided a steady hand in her first two seasons with the Lady Bulldogs, she ascended to a higher plane down the stretch last year.
The bad news is the 6-foot-4 center won’t be sneaking up on anybody this season. But the good news is Staiti and everyone else knows what to expect.
“She’s well aware of what’s coming this year,” said Taylor. “…She consistently shows up and now owns what is her role on the team.”
With double- and triple-teaming in her future, getting involved figures to be a bit tougher, but the confidence Staiti built last winter should be helpful going forward.
“There’s a lot more I need do that I didn’t do last year,” she said. “If I’m not getting the ball right away or I’m not getting touches I need to find other ways to get the ball…It’s just little things that I need to do that will help me with the big picture.”
In transition: The Lady Bulldogs have designs on “playing fast” and have been practicing their offensive sets with a shot clock set on 8 or 16 seconds. This will no doubt put a little extra pressure on the defense and place a real premium on scoring in transition, an aspect of the attack Taylor is amending.
“We’ve always wanted to play fast and we’ve done that, and we’ve changed our transition,” said Taylor, who added she wants to see her team average 10 more points per game than last season. “We’ve put in a system that has allowed us to have exact structure and we know what our looks are…It’s a lot of fun. We’re still going to play how we play, but we want to be able to get down the floor quicker and this will give us the opportunity to do that.”
The Lady Bulldogs averaged 63.2 points per game to their opponents’ 63.0.
In transition, part two: Taylor said that sophomore Kaila Hubbard had opted out of the 2020-21 season due to COVID concerns and that junior Shaniya Jones (who transferred from Virginia Tech and became eligible after fall semester) has been dismissed due to violations of team rules.
Jones had several bright spots, including a 20-point debut against Furman and a 23-point game against South Carolina, and averaged nearly 5 points per game. Hubbard averaged nearly 10 floor minutes a night and averaged 2.4 points and 1.7 rebounds per game.
Certain uncertainties: Like every other NCAA team, Georgia does not have a schedule in place for the season. There are two knowns, however – Division I teams can begin play on Nov. 25 and the SEC has established Dec. 31 as the start date for women’s league games.
“I don’t think we know what’s going to happen,” said Taylor. “In terms of conference play, there’s some built-in time…where we can make up games. We need to play as many (non-conference) games as possible in case we have to forfeit some games.”
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