AMES, Iowa — In the final second of Jenna Staiti’s time in a Georgia basketball uniform, she hauled in a final rebound. She bounced the ball to a referee and walked across the baseline.
Tears welled in Staiti’s eyes. Overflowing emotions became too heavy to consider walking off with her teammates. She placed the red jersey over her eyes and weeped. After stepping through the tunnel and out of the view of thousands of spectators, Staiti bent over and bawled. Every emotion from gratitude and pride to grief and disappointment came to the surface.
“To speak to what she's done for this program, there are no words. She's done everything she possibly could. The legacy she has left here is amazing."
She stood doubled over with her head drooped low for a moment. Staiti was consoled by Ryan Leonard, the team’s creative services director. The sixth-year senior eventually walked through Hilton Coliseum’s underbelly with her head held high and arms locked with the staffer after Georiga was eliminated from the NCAA Tournament by Iowa State.
Five years at Georgia held a lot of value. Staiti dreaded the final day of her career. She never wanted to take the uniform off.
“I’m just so grateful,” Staiti said.
Georgia ended its season with a 67-44 second-round loss, falling short of its opportunity to clinch a Sweet 16 berth for the first time since 2013. It meant farewell to Staiti, Que Morrison and potentially Mikayla Coombs and Malury Bates if they choose not to return for a final year of eligibility.
For Staiti, it concludes a chapter that started as a five-star recruit who chose to play for Maryland and realized she made the wrong decision. She transferred to Georgia in 2017 as one of the building blocks within head coach Joni Taylor’s culture-first program. Staiti cemented her place in program record books as one of the league’s elite post talents and recently earned All-SEC first-team honors.
“To speak to what she’s done for this program, there are no words,” Coombs said. “She’s done everything she possibly could. The legacy she has left here is amazing.”
Staiti’s time at Georgia went deeper than basketball. She had the on-court mission of helping the Lady Bulldogs find national prominence again and achieved that as Georgia had plenty of defining wins throughout her career. None of that mattered as much as her bonds with teammates, Taylor and the experience that helped Staiti through some of her life’s toughest times.
Staiti’s mother, Sandi Staiti, said that Jenna thought teams wouldn’t have interest when she decided to leave Maryland. Turns out, the Staitis got too many calls and Sandi had to redirect calls to her AAU coach, Matt Huddleston. Taylor eventually made contact and a mutual pursuit out of the transfer portal began.
Sandi sat outside of a DSW shoe store near her home in Cumming when Taylor called. They never talked about basketball, but instead about life. Jenna quickly jumped at the opportunity to represent her home state. The family immediately saw the value in Taylor’s intention to draw in high-character talent and put a number of qualities ahead of basketball.
Coombs called Taylor a “mother figure,” and the Staitis saw it firsthand after her move from Maryland. The touted prospect who eventually became a force in the SEC molded herself in Athens. Taylor became Staiti’s biggest support through the passing of her grandmother, Ann Reda, and the sudden illness and recovery her father Jim Staiti faced during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Joni welcomed me back home,” Staiti said. “I was broken when I came to Georgia. She fixed me. She and this program have made me a better person.”
Taylor’s husband, Atlanta Dream assistant general manager Darius Taylor, said their family takes plenty of pride in cherishing their players ahead of the sport. Darius and Joni are children of educators, and their biggest joy is welcoming others into their family. Staiti became beloved to the two basketball leaders, and to the Taylors’ two young daughters, Jacie and Drew.
Georgia’s head coach helped Staiti change her life for the good. Sandi said her family felt Taylor’s influence beyond words. She allowed Staiti to sparkle on the court but also allowed her to return to her family before Reda’s death. Sandi called Taylor with the news, and she consoled Jenna before her family could make contact.
Credit: Photo courtesy of Sandi Staiti
Credit: Photo courtesy of Sandi Staiti
“She’s priceless. There’s no other way to put it,” Sandi said of Taylor. “We saw her put Jenna back together again, and it has been the greatest gift. You see it in how they supported Jenna.
“Recruits need to know, Joni Taylors aren’t just out there.”
Last March, after Georgia’s second-round exit to Oregon, Staiti’s tears flowed on that evening. Staiti didn’t have a guarantee that she’d be able to return for a sixth season, despite the extra year of eligibility. Georgia didn’t have to grant it, so Taylor’s acceptance became the family’s biggest gift. Sandi remembered talking with athletic director Josh Brooks in San Antonio and voiced Jenna’s desire to return. He swiftly got on the phone with Taylor, and the announcement to return with Morrison came on April 8.
It set the stage for a final campaign. Georgia welcomed Staiti back with open arms, and she felt honored. It allowed for a tightly knit family to remain within 60 miles of each other. She truly felt at home. Sandi and Jim could come to Athens at a moment’s notice for dinner or to reunite Jenna with her three beloved dogs: Otto, Suzie and Rosie.
“They made a decision to come to Georgia when we weren’t hot and building something,” Taylor said of Staiti and Morrison. “They stayed the course and dug in. It wasn’t always pretty. (We loved) how they led, loved and represented the University of Georgia.”
“She didn’t have to take me back,” Jenna said. “They know how much I love this program. We never had any regrets.”
Taylor sighed in emotion as Staiti gave her farewell. She dreaded the moment, too. Staiti’s lips quivered and couldn’t contain crying as she spoke. Taylor wiped away tears while smiling in pride.
“I love you,” Taylor said on the podium.
“I love you, too,” Staiti replied through tears.
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Credit: John Spink / John.Spink@ajc.com