Abrahamson-Henderson wants Georgia women’s basketball back in title hunt

Credit: Chip Towers

Credit: Chip Towers

Editor’s note: This is the second in a series examining the current state of athletic programs at the University of Georgia. Today’s installment focuses on women’s basketball.

ATHENS — Georgia’s Katie Abrahamson-Henderson – “Coach ABE” (yes, she writes it with all caps) to the college basketball world – is part of one of the more impressive coaching trees ever erected. It would be even more glorious if she had intentionally designed it.

Abrahamson-Henderson takes no credit for the career path that led her to play and work for some of the great minds in her sport, but it’s one she is extremely proud of, nonetheless.

“I’m a Christian, so I think it was God’s plan,” said the Bulldogs’ first-year coach, sitting in her new office on the second floor of UGA’s Coliseum Training Facility last week. “I came to Georgia to play for Hall of Fame coach Andy Landers not knowing anything other than I missed my family. Then I go back home and Vivian Stringer is my coach? Wow!”

The daughter of a single mother, homesickness led the high school All-American back to Iowa. There, she starred for C. Vivian Stringer, one of the top coaches of all time in games won (1,055 victories). Together with Stringer, Abrahamson won 56 of 63 games at Iowa and made two deep runs in the NCAA Tournament. That followed two seasons as a starter for Landers’ Lady Bulldogs. Similarly, those teams went 57-7 and played in a pair of Sweet 16s.

The majestic limbs kept sprouting from there. Initially not intending to be a coach – she went to college thinking sports management or exercise physiology – the decision to get a postgraduate degree led to stints with Joanne Palombo-McCallie, first at Maine, later at Michigan State. She also would end up working for Bill Fennelly at Iowa State.

Abrahamson-Henderson became her own sapling with her first head-coaching gig leading Missouri State’s storied women’s basketball program. From 2002-07, the Lady Bears went to three NCAA Tournaments and won two conference titles and a WNIT championship.

An uber-successful run at Albany that included five consecutive NCAA Tournament bids landed Abrahamson-Henderson at Central Florida. There, she executed one of the great turnarounds in women’s basketball, leading the Knights to the program’s first American Athletic Conference title and a school record for wins with a 26-4 mark this past season.

All of which brought her full circle back to Georgia. For UGA’s athletic administration, Abrahamson-Henderson was a quick and obvious solution to Joni Taylor’s surprise decision to bolt to Texas A&M after last season.

“Obviously, I loved it at UCF; I never wanted to leave,” Abrahamson-Henderson said. “But I never thought Joni was going to leave. Ever. Then it opened up, and I was like, ‘Oh, my.’ It was weird, and it was fast.”

So there she sat last week, in the office most recently occupied by Taylor but only Landers before that. One of Abrahamson-Henderson’s most prized new possessions is the No. 3 Georgia jersey that the school provided her the day she was named head coach. The “3″ symbolizes her as the third head coach in program history.

“Isn’t that wild?” she said.

For now, the jersey still lays folded on a bookshelf. Eventually it will be framed, but there hasn’t been time yet to do such things.

Abrahamson-Henderson has been in a relative sprint since her introductory news conference March 26. There has been a lot to get done, and there is still much to do.

That’s only with the basketball program. Never mind the real-life challenges of two daughters finishing school in Orlando, selling a house and finding another in Athens, settling on schools and so on. In between was building a staff (she has pretty much kept the same one top to bottom), recruiting, a signing period, managing the transfer portal both outgoing and incoming, conducting a couple of camps, and planning and executing offseason workouts.

The 2022-23 Lady Bulldogs have been assembled now and are working out together in the training complex. Finally, it’s about what needs to happen on the court.

“Obviously, I loved it at UCF; I never wanted to leave. But I never thought Joni (Taylor) was going to leave. Ever. Then it opened up, and I was like, ‘Oh, my.' It was weird, and it was fast."

- Georgia coach Katie Abrahamson-Henderson

“It more so has to do with the portal,” Abrahamson-Henderson said of the hectic pace. “That’s a huge change, and it’s making all college coaches adapt. That’s why we’ve all been busy. That’s football, basketball, all the sports. Normally you’re not that busy this time of year.”

Between the players who elected to stay at UGA, the ones who came from UCF and the ones who have come from points far and wide, it appears the Lady Bulldogs again will be a force to be reckoned with. Their coach appears to have assembled a post-oriented squad with a nice blend of experience, skill and athletic ability.

Where Abrahamson-Henderson would like to distinguish herself is not only getting Georgia into the postseason, but competing for championships, both regular season and otherwise. That’s where the Lady Bulldogs were coming up short under Taylor.

After a 26-7 campaign that ended abruptly with a second-round loss in the 2018 NCAA Tournament, Georgia had a series of quick exits in the “Big Dance.” The Lady Bulldogs made a run at the SEC Tournament title in 2021 but couldn’t get past South Carolina in the championship game. Then, they bowed out to Duke in the NCAA’s second round.

Georgia’s NCAA Tournament presence under Taylor was nice, but otherwise the Lady Bulldogs were just an indistinguishable face in the SEC throng that populates every postseason.

Abrahamson-Henderson’s attitude of what constitutes success is different. Never mind all those runs her teams made while playing at Georgia and Iowa. It has been the battles fought and championships conquered in the second-tier conferences where she has coached that her competitive spirit has been formed.

“My perspective is different than a lot of coaches,” she said. “When I was at Albany, we had to win the whole thing in order to get in. That’s pressure. … Same thing at UCF. We might get two teams in. It was about conference championships. In the SEC, you might be getting seven, eight, nine teams in. So my mentality is a little different.

“It’ll never be, ‘OK, let’s just go be No. 8!’”

Her teams have reflected that sentiment. In 17 seasons as a head coach, Abrahamson-Henderson has compiled a 372-157 record (.703), averaged 22 victories per season, won seven regular-season titles, nine conference tournament crowns and earned 11 NCAA berths (14 postseason bids overall).

Does Georgia have the stuff to sustain such a pace this year? Abrahamson-Henderson can’t be sure, of course. But she likes the team she has assembled in short order.

The Bulldogs’ 15-player roster is complete. It features five players who already were at Georgia (Zoesha Smith, Chloe Chapman, Jordan Isaacs, Malury Bates and Javyn Nicholson), three UCF transfers (Diamond Battles, Brittney Smith and Alisha Lewis), Texas transfer Audrey Warren, West Virginia transfer Kari Niblack, Vanderbilt transfer De’Mauri Flournoy, and three highly touted freshman signees (Stefanie Ingram, Fatima Diakhate and Amiya Evans).

It also includes a highly recruited, top-50 prospect out of Orlando. That 6-foot-3 guard is Savannah Henderson, and she happens to be the eldest daughter of Mike and Katie Henderson.

That’s new ground even for the Bulldogs’ 55-year-old coach.

“I was shocked she wanted to come here,” Abrahamson-Henderson said of her daughter. “She’s a smart kid, and I told her right away we were going to recruit her the exact same way we do everybody else. The (assistant) coaches called her; we separated her from coming over to the office like she always had. We did a home-visit presentation with her. I was at home in a different room, and her and Daddy were in another room with our coaches and hearing what they had to say. …

“She made a really good, smart decision. And God just blessed us with a tall, long, athletic guard who can play at this level.”

It’s another beautiful circle that has Savannah Henderson starting her college career at the same place her mother did. Now the task is to get the program back to where it was before.

Well before she was “Coach ABE,” she played at Georgia with Katrina McClain, Barbara Bootz, Lisa O’Connor and Teresa Edwards. The Bulldogs won the SEC championship her freshman season and lost only seven games in two seasons. That’s the standard she envisions for Georgia women’s basketball.

“We’re looking for toughness, you know,” Abrahamson-Henderson said. “Tough, competitive, hustle, diving on loose balls, those are the kids we’re looking for. We’re just putting the puzzle together. There has been a lot of assessing of situations for a long time. Now we have to go play.”

As for that “ABE-in-all-caps” thing, that’s just something the coach said she has just rolled with. She inherited it from her father, Lee Abrahamson, who played basketball at Coe College with eventual NBA championship coach Bill Fitch. Hers is a basketball family, which includes an uncle who played at Iowa State and another who played at Drake.

“They were all basketball knuckleheads, and everybody called them ‘ABE,’ all caps. ABE, ABE, ABE,” she said, laughing. “It’s weird, and I don’t know why.”

That’s OK. The goal now is for “Coach ABE” to make a name for herself at Georgia.