No. 22 Lady Bulldogs look for late-season launch vs. No. 21 Tennessee

Georgia's Gabby Connally (2) and the defensive-minded Lady Dogs hope to make it two in a row over the Tennessee Vols and guard Jordan Walker when they meet Sunday for the a Top 25 matchup at Stegeman Coliseum. (Photo from UGA Athletics)
Georgia's Gabby Connally (2) and the defensive-minded Lady Dogs hope to make it two in a row over the Tennessee Vols and guard Jordan Walker when they meet Sunday for the a Top 25 matchup at Stegeman Coliseum. (Photo from UGA Athletics)

Credit: Brianna Paciorka/News Sentinel

Credit: Brianna Paciorka/News Sentinel

ATHENS -- Joni Taylor already had fielded a couple of what-a-great-year-it-has-been questions Thursday on a Zoom call with reporters when she decided it was probably about one too many.

“We rest at the end, not at the middle,” said Taylor, who has led Georgia’s Lady Bulldogs to a 16-4 record (8-4 SEC) so far. “That’s been our quote for a lot of things this year. Rest when you’re done, not in the middle. We’re still in the middle.”

Considering there are only three games remaining in the regular season, Taylor’s statement makes it clear that the plan is to keep playing for a while. To do that, there’s no time for resting on laurels, or even discussing them.

Besides, things are pretty cranked up at present, starting with Georgia’s home game Sunday against No. 21 Tennessee. The Lady Vols (13-5, 7-3) just handed No. 2 South Carolina its first SEC loss since 2019 on Thursday night in Knoxville, 75-67. That was after getting snowed-in in Texas until Tuesday and having another mid-week game postponed.

Lady Bulldogs fans will recall that UGA not so long ago knocked off Tennessee. That dramatic 67-66 victory Jan. 11 in Knoxville represented Georgia’s first win at Thompson-Boling Arena since 1996.

The Lady Vols likely haven’t forgotten that either.

“Tennessee will be coming in with a vengeance,” Georgia junior Mikayla Coombs astutely pointed out.

Then there’s the matter of all that awaits on the other side of Sunday’s game.

First, there’s still a date with No. 17 Kentucky (14-5), a team the Lady Bulldogs have struggled against in recent years (1-6 under Taylor). Then, the regular-season finale Feb. 28 at Florida (10-10) before the always rough-and-tumble SEC Tournament March 3-7 in Greenville, S.C.

“We talk about in-the-moment impacts versus whole things,” said Taylor, who is wrapping up her sixth season as Georgia’s coach. “We still have work to do. To use everybody’s favorite quote, ‘We’re still chopping wood.’ So that’s our terminology. But we do talk about what’s on the line in the present moment.”

In a nutshell, a lot. Seeding. Momentum. Legacy.

All that will be on the line versus Tennessee. While not quite reminiscent of Pat Summit’s powerhouses, the Lady Vols nonetheless have forged their way back into the league’s upper echelon. And the Lady Bulldogs struggled mightily against them early in the first meeting.

Georgia behind by 17 points before mounting a Que Morrison-led comeback in the second half. Morrison made a pair of 3-pointers and scored 17 points as Georgia outscored Tennessee 29-9 in the third quarter and staved off a late rally for the win.

The Bulldogs will bring into this one some lessons from that one.

“We have to get off to a better start,” said senior guard Gabby Connally, Georgia’s second-leading scorer at 11.9 points per game. “We got down really big. They’re a good team, and they’re gonna want to come in here and do that again. So, we’ve got to hit first and not have to climb our way back into the game.”

That happened to Tennessee in inverse against South Carolina. They got behind early but used a 22-6 run in the third quarter to take control of the game. Rennia Davis led the way with 24 points, all scored after halftime.

Otherwise, it would appear Georgia is catching Tennessee at a good time. While the Lady Vols toiled through “Snow-mageddon” in Texas, and then a stressful contest against the No. 2 Gamecocks, the Lady Bulldogs had Thursday off after Vanderbilt shut down for the season.

As it sits, Georgia is fourth in the SEC, better than their ninth-place preseason prediction. If that holds, the Lady Bulldogs will have finished higher than their preseason prediction in five of Taylor’s six seasons as coach.

But, as always, it will be the postseason that defines Lady Bulldogs basketball. That’s why Taylor wants to keep the regular-season-success narrative controlled in front of her, like the defensive fundamentals she preaches.

Right now, the Lady Bulldogs project as a No. 3 seed, the No. 12 team overall. That could go either way, depending on how things go at the end of the season. Hence, the in-the-moment mentality.

“The coaches want us focused on being where we are,” said Coombs, a Sixth Player of the Year candidate. “They don’t want us looking too far into what’s going on. But I think the culture around here has an impact on everything we do. When we go out there we’re literally playing for each other.”

Lately, there hasn’t been a lot to write home about when it comes to the Lady Bulldogs in the postseason. Under Taylor, there was a two-round NCAA appearance in 2018, which based on the expectations of that 26-7 team, almost felt like a disappointment, and a one-and-out appearance in 2016.

One has to go back to Andy Landers’ Elite Eight team of 2013 and those Sweet 16 teams of 2010 and 2011 to recall the excitement of a deep tournament run that Georgia was once accustomed to making regularly. But in this year’s squad, there appears to be similar potential.

Here’s a few things you should know about the Lady Bulldogs as they enter on this critical stretch of the schedule:

  • They’re a bunch of grizzled veterans. Georgia starts four seniors and they are its four leading scorers in Jenna Staiti (14.2 ppg), Maya Caldwell (7.3), Connally (11.9) and Morrison (11.1). All four have graduated from UGA with their undergrad degrees and are currently pursuing master’s degrees. They have been leading us this year.
  • The Lady Bulldogs are phenomenal on defense. They’re allowing an SEC-best 59.3 points per game and are in the top five of every defensive category, including in field-goal percentage defense (.369) and 3-point field-goal percentage defense (.270) and steals (9.1 per game).
  • They block shots. Or at least Stati does. The 6-foot-4 former transfer from Maryland leads the SEC in blocked shots with 61, or three a game, erasing a lot of breakdowns outside the lane. Junior Malury Bates also has 23 swats. Georgia’s second in the SEC with 6.2 per game.
  • They’re starless. Mostly anyway. Staiti represents a sort of baseline for the Lady Bulldogs, being counted on for double-figures scoring and seven to 10 rebounds every outing. But somebody else almost always goes off, and there’s no telling who. Like Connally’s 29 points in the last game at Missouri or Morrison’s 25 a week ago at Alabama.
  • They love to go to the free-throw line. Georgia is the best free-throw shooting team in the SEC at 75.8 percent. The Lady Bulldogs have visited the stripe 318 times, and their senior starters shoot over 80 percent from there.
  • They’re a mix of players. Caldwell, Connally and Morrison have been with Taylor from the jump, while Staiti started out at Maryland and Coombs at Connecticut. Meanwhile, freshmen and sophomores populate the bench, including Alabama Player of the Year Sarah Ashlee Barker, who’s giving her team, and Chloe Chapman, who actually stars on the Georgia soccer team.

Put it all together, and Georgia looks like it’s loaded for “bear.” That just happens to be the term Taylor used for the end-of-season stretch that lies before the Lady Bulldogs.

“It’s about the fit and the culture and the people,” Taylor said. “That’s why the chemistry is so great and why we’ve got 13 young ladies and a staff of 26, 27 moving in the right direction. We all showed up with the same belief for what we wanted to do for Georgia basketball.”

And that business remains unfinished.

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