Hollingshead flashing potential early in her career at Georgia

ATHENS — Georgia’s two biggest wins of the season against powerhouses Notre Dame and N.C. State required overtime. They came with plenty of thrilling, stress-filled moments. Each time, freshman Jillian Hollingshead has been called upon to take the floor in pivotal stretches of play.

The newcomer produced with every chance.

Hollingshead opened her college career with a few positive glimpses against mid-major teams. Three blocks against Alabama State drew an eye to the stat sheet, but also set the stage for her first true test. Georgia topped the Fighting Irish, but wouldn’t have done so without the freshman.

Half of her 19 minutes came in the fourth quarter and overtime, and two game-changing baskets came from Hollingshead. Que Morrison found her new teammate on a cut to the basket which tied the game. Ninety seconds later, Hollingshead collected a missed 3-pointer by Sarah Ashlee Barker and scored on the putback.

“You see the impact she can make, even as a freshman,” guard Mikayla Coombs said. “She makes a difficult pull-up shot look natural. She can really help take us far.”

A few weeks later, Georgia made its mark in a rowdy environment at N.C. State. The Lady Bulldogs led by 12 points at the half, but then relinquished their advantage to a top-five program with thousands of fans behind it. Hollingshead, admittedly “a little scared as a freshman would be,” played 26 minutes in a two-point victory that came down to the final seconds of an extra period.

She finished with nine points, but a career-high in minutes came with a 4-for-4 shooting performance. Hollingshead corralled a pivotal miss from N.C. State guard Diamond Johnson, and her rebound allowed for Barker’s heroic 3-point shot to force overtime.

“She can be an important player for us. It’s nice to watch her get comfortable,” senior post player Malury Bates said. “We need her. We know we need her.”

Hollingshead arrived at Georgia as a highly-touted freshman from McEachern High School and the headliner of arguably Joni Taylor’s best recruiting haul in her seven-year tenure as the Lady Bulldogs’ leader. The former McDonald’s All-American, Atlanta Journal-Constitution 7A High School Player of the Year and four-star prospect had plenty of potential for Georgia’s coaches to tap into from the moment she stepped foot into the team facilities.

Everyone affiliated with the program knew Hollingshead, because they’d begun the recruiting process with the in-state product as a middle schooler. From the moment she decided to play in Athens, they anticipated her capabilities as a 6-foot-5 post presence with a bundle of athleticism. Taylor beams with joy and expectation around her newcomer.

“She’s LaKeisha Frett. If you want a more-modern version of it, she has the potential to be a Candace Parker,” Taylor said before Hollingshead logged her first minute at Georgia. “She’s not there. She’s got that skill set.”

Hollingshead, in a bench role averaging 14.9 minutes per game, is the team’s fifth-leading scorer with 6.1 points per game. She set a career-high with 12 points against St. Francis (Pa.), but has six games with eight or more points. Over consecutive weeks in late December, Hollingshead earned SEC Freshman of the Week honors.

“It’s a motivating thing for me,” Hollingshead said. “It gives me confidence and makes me want to achieve more.”

Layers of the progression onion, especially for a freshman, are peeled back slowly. Hollingshead has been with the program since it convened for summer workouts. The potential came to light immediately.

Jordan Isaacs, who has seen Hollingshead’s growth since her days as an AAU player, remembered an in-practice sequence where fellow freshman Alina Sendar had a steal and found Hollingshead. She took over ball-handling duties in transition, took a few dribbles and scored a layup. The play made the Lady Bulldogs erupt inside the practice gym and foreshadowed what lay ahead for the freshman.

The results began to show on the biggest stages. Hollingshead began to shine when playing alongside Jenna Staiti, and the sixth-year senior said the duo creates challenges because “you have to guard her.” It reminded Georgia that it has a bright future in the post when Staiti departs after this season. In a season where the Lady Bulldogs have championship-chasing aspirations, nonetheless, Taylor’s bold comparisons meet a challenge.

“She has a chance to be really, really special, but she’s not there yet,” Taylor said. “Jillian probably thinks I’m on her head more than I am anybody. I am, because there’s greatness in her. We haven’t really tapped into what she’s capable of.”

Hollingshead, according to her coach, doesn’t “have a clue what we’re doing on offense” about 60% of the time. She still runs into numerous games with eight points and five rebounds. Taylor likened it to the progression of Barker, who didn’t know what the Lady Bulldogs were doing as a freshman but still provided a spark. She’s now a sophomore starter and averages nearly 30 minutes a game.

It’s not uncommon for younger players to need time to progress through the learning curve, especially in Georgia’s complex system. Staiti needed two years to take a starring role. Javyn Nicholson didn’t have full confidence until her junior season. Bates, as a senior, still feels the game slowing down.

For Hollingshead, though, Georgia knows it can benefit from the freshman gaining a firmer grasp on the scheme.

“In my mind, Jillian can no longer be a freshman,” Taylor said. “She has to move to the point of being someone we can rely on and count on. That means knowing your scouting report on both ends and being where you’re supposed to be. She’s got a ways to go. That’s my discussion with her: ‘How much better can you be?’”

Hollingshead wants to build an on-court alter ego. She’s admittedly goofy and full of fun, but Taylor challenged her to be “meaner and tougher” when taking the floor. The freshman understands the reasons for her coach’s criticisms.

“I definitely embrace it. I know she sees stuff in me that I can’t quite see yet,” Hollingshead said. “She’s so hard on me, because she wants me to be my better self. There’s always a next step.”