No. 17 Lady Bulldogs look to stay on roll vs. No. 19 Kentucky

Georgia head coach Joni Taylor watches senior guard Gabby Connally at work in a win over Tennessee at Stegeman Coliseum on Sunday, Feb. 21, 2021. (Photo by Tony Walsh/UGA)
Georgia head coach Joni Taylor watches senior guard Gabby Connally at work in a win over Tennessee at Stegeman Coliseum on Sunday, Feb. 21, 2021. (Photo by Tony Walsh/UGA)

Credit: Tony Walsh

Credit: Tony Walsh

ATHENS -- SEC and NCAA tournament seeding will be on the line Thursday when No. 17 Georgia plays host to No. 19 Kentucky in a women’s basketball game at Stegeman Coliseum.

The Lady Bulldogs (17-4, 9-4 SEC) have won four consecutive games and are coming off a historic season sweep of Tennessee for the first time since 1985 with a second win Sunday. The Wildcats (15-6, 8-5) are coming off a 76-55 loss to No. 5 South Carolina in Columbia.

The initial battle is for the No. 3 seed in next week’s SEC Tournament in Greenville, S.C. But there’s also a whole lot of pride and determination at stake as Georgia looks to reset a series most recently dominated by Kentucky and set itself on a path for postseason success.

“You want to put yourself in the best position possible, right?” said Lady Bulldogs coach Joni Taylor, who has her team in position for only their third NCAA tournament bid of her tenure. “I think seeding plays a part in it. But for us it’s always about control your own destiny. You want to be able to control your destiny without relying on other people’s scores or wins or losses. I think we’ve done a good job of managing that.”

Georgia was left out the NCAA tournament two years ago following an 18-12 season. Nobody’s sure what would have happened last year, when the pandemic ended the season with the Bulldogs sitting at 17-14 following a second-round loss to South Carolina in the SEC Tournament.

Georgia has made the NCAA tournament two other times under Taylor, falling out in the second round and finishing 26-7 in 2018 and going 21-10 with a first-round ouster in her first season in 2016.

Neither outcome – never mind missing the tournament altogether – rings of the Lady Bulldogs’ long-earned tradition. Taylor and her current charges know that, and aim to do something about it.

“I’m so proud to be here and play for Georgia and get us back to what Georgia basketball really is,” said senior Jenna Staiti, Georgia’s leading scorer and rebounder. “Joni harps on it all the time. It’s the expectation. It’s what we’re supposed to do. Knowing this year we’ve gotten us back to where we need to be and in good position, it means a lot.”

Said Taylor: “We continuously talk about what kind of legacy do you want to leave. You can walk thought these halls and look up at the banners, and you have a clear understanding of the legacy that was left for you. But how are you are leaving it for everybody that comes after you.”

First thing first, here comes Kentucky. It’s a program that has had Georgia’s number in recent years, winning five of the past six in the series.

The Wildcats are led by 6-foot-2 junior guard Rhyne Howard, the 2020 SEC player of the year and the team’s leading scorer (19.3 ppg). And while the Bulldogs are the SEC’s best defensive team (59.1 ppg), Kentucky’s not too shabby itself (65.33).

The matchup of All-SEC defender Que Morrison versus Kentucky’s Howard should be one for the ages.

“Rhyne Howard is special; she’s fun to watch,” Taylor said. “… Que’s gonna guard her; that’s not a secret. But she’s going to have her hands full. And Kentucky is loaded besides.”

The Lady Bulldogs’ fans are still abuzz about Sunday’s historic win over Tennessee. Getting a season sweep of the Lady Vols was a long time coming – since 1985 in fact. But such in-season accomplishments are but a by-product of the greater goal here. That’s for Georgia to be back in the NCAA tournament for the long run.

Staiti is one of four seniors and a fourth-year junior in Mikayla Coombs who are leading the way for Georgia this season. The last time the Lady Bulldogs reached the Elite Eight, when Taylor was an assistant coach for coach Andy Landers in 2013, Georgia was similarly built.

“They all played heavy minutes from their freshman year on and they had an air about them,” Taylor said. “They played hard, but they liked to have fun. There’s a lot of similarities between that team and this one. … I’m hoping that’s what happens with this group.”

In Other News