Lady Bulldogs look dangerous in SEC tourney loss to South Carolina

Credit: SEC

Georgia women’s basketball coach Joni Taylor comments on the first championship featuring Black head coaches - with Gamecocks’ Dawn Staley - in SEC final.

Credit: SEC

Running into an unyielding wall — the same one that has blocked the way year after year after year — is not the best way to mark a birthday. Getting older is hard enough without the added frustration. But all things considered, Georgia Lady Bulldogs basketball coach Joni Taylor didn’t come out of this latest collision too badly scraped up.

There were enough positive threads running through Georgia’s 67-62 loss to South Carolina in SEC Tournament championship game Sunday that the day was eminently salvageable.

For one, as Taylor was turning 42, she also was making a little bit of coaching history. She was paired against South Carolina’s Dawn Staley, and it was the first time two Black female coaches have met in the final of a Power Five conference tournament.

“It shows what we’re capable of,” Taylor said afterward. “Everyone won today. It was a huge moment to be able to showcase what we and our two teams are able to do.

“When I was growing up in high school, I never witnessed two black female coaches coaching for a conference championship, so I think you can’t dream what you can’t see. I’m very proud to be part of it, very proud of both programs,” she added.

For another, after now losing the last 14 meetings with South Carolina, there is some solace to be had in losing well. Staley has built South Carolina into the UConn of the south, a dominant program that has now won six of the last seven SEC tournament titles. The Gamecocks will assume a familiar top-seeded position in the NCAA tournament bracket. This was the team that Georgia led throughout the first quarter Sunday, was tied with at the half, stumbled against during the third quarter while scoring but eight points, and charged hard at the end. A five-point loss looks downright appealing when stood next to two 35-plus-point losses to South Carolina a year ago.

Sunday was Georgia’s first SEC Tournament final appearance since 2004. In the stands in Greenville, S.C. was a noted player from when the Lady Bulldogs last won one of these things (2001), the performer formerly known as Mary Beth Lycett. She brought along her kids and her husband, some guy named Kirby Smart, who also knows a little about walls, too. The one built in Tuscaloosa.

Other than winning, the Lady Bulldogs did make good use of the weekend. In beating a ranked Kentucky and top-seeded Texas A&M on the way to a very competitive final, they assured themselves of a nice, low single-digit seeding for the upcoming NCAAs in San Antonio.

Georgia guard Mikayla Coombs (4) and Jordan Isaacs (20) battle for a rebound against South Carolina guard LeLe Grissett (24) and Brea Beal (right) during the second half of the SEC Tournament championship game Sunday, March 7, 2021, in Greenville, S.C. (Sean Rayford/AP)
Georgia guard Mikayla Coombs (4) and Jordan Isaacs (20) battle for a rebound against South Carolina guard LeLe Grissett (24) and Brea Beal (right) during the second half of the SEC Tournament championship game Sunday, March 7, 2021, in Greenville, S.C. (Sean Rayford/AP)

Credit: Sean Rayford

Credit: Sean Rayford

Said Georgia center Jenne Staiti, who finished with a foul-plagued 10 points, five rebounds and three blocks: “Today sucks, it’s not how we wanted to go down. We can put it in perspective by saying we can play with any team in the country.”

Added her coach, “We’re not done playing basketball. I think we grew up a lot this weekend. I think we proved to everyone what we already knew — that we can play with the best of the best. Fortunately for us we have another opportunity to play in the tournament in a week.”

Georgia women’s basketball is supposed to be good. The coach who established that mandate over a 36-year career, Women’s College Basketball Hall of Famer Andy Landers, is likewise encouraged by the NCAA prospects of the current senior-laden bunch. He has himself a nice gig now commenting on the women’s game for ESPN. And he’s happy to have Georgia and Taylor — the assistant he supported for the job when he retired in 2015 — to talk about for a little while longer.

“It’s a lot more fun when things are going well for Georgia, to be talking about good things and the positives,” he said Sunday.

Landers offered this quick analysis: “When they can score, when they’re getting point production from the perimeter, I think Georgia is really good. There have been times they have struggled with that consistency from the perimeter and when that happens, they have to rely on their defense. And (Sunday) they could not create enough offensive opportunities — not from the rebounding because South Carolina is a real good rebounding team, or by creating turnovers to get their running game going. Offensively they went a little cold in the second half.”

For the wont a basket here or a turnover there, the South Carolina wall still stands. For the ride back to Athens, though, Taylor had to be accompanied by a bit of encouragement.

“We knew we had to take that game from them and we didn’t, we fell short,” she said. “What we were able to do today though tells us we’re right there.”

Someday, she must believe, that wall will fall. She looks forward to running into it again.

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