'Get out of her way': Why Georgia's Jenna Staiti believes her dominant run can continue

The Lady Bulldogs' redshirt senior had an end-of-season tear. In her last year, Staiti wants more.

Georgia center Jenna Staiti (14) during the Bulldogs’ practice session at Stegeman Coliseum in Athens, Ga., on Thursday, Oct. 28, 2020. (Photo by Tony Walsh)

ATHENS, Ga. — Georgia’s season-ending loss to South Carolina in early March left Jenna Staiti with a sick feeling. She wanted more. The veteran player, who emerged as one of the SEC’s best, had juice left in her energy tank.

She returned to her family home in Forsyth County, Ga. and found tape of the conference tournament loss on YouTube for a film study. Staiti, of course, thought her team’s run of late-season prosperity would continue through the postseason before Covid-19 put the sports world on pause. It didn’t matter whether it was the NCAA tournament or the WNIT, Staiti saw it as more games to allow her competitive fires to burn.

That didn’t happen, which is well-known months later. The disappointments were with Staiti to end on a sour note. She didn’t lead the Lady Bulldogs to reaching their ultimate goal, but neither did any other program in the country.

So, it turned to a hunger. A starvation to improve that was backed by oodles of confidence.

“I’ve been pissed off about how I got into this role so late,” Staiti said in February in the midst of her streak. “It should’ve been snapping off earlier in the season.”

Staiti became Georgia’s most-dominant player as the team went through its most-prosperous run of the 2019-20 season. Everything ran through the former five-star recruit and Gatorade Player of the Year. In many respects, it’s how those around Staiti saw her at the earlier peak of her basketball career.

The performances aren’t easy to forget. In case you did, allow for a refresher of how Staiti went into full takeover. Her surge began with 24 points and nine rebounds in a Feb. 26 loss to Missouri. She walked out of Stegeman Coliseum noticeably displeased with the result and that became the fuel. Staiti followed it with three double-doubles and four-consecutive games with 20-or-more points in an eight-contest span from Feb. 9 to March 6.

*insert Will Smith gasping GIF here*

“She owned what her role is on the team,” head coach Joni Taylor said.

Staiti found it. She searched for it since she began her college career at Maryland. It took a transfer, a redshirt year and a Lady Bulldog debut season of average production to see it all click. Nonetheless, it did. Staiti elevated to a different gear when in her stride.

A new season has arrived and Staiti will get plenty of new looks. Her opponents have seen what the 6-foot-6 senior is capable of. It has been proven more than a few times, too. Staiti’s goal is to maintain the same level of output while facing a heap of new challenges. That test begins as Georgia opens on Nov. 25 at Mercer (6 p.m., ESPN+), and there’s a permeating belief throughout the team locker room that it can continue.

“We’re ready to show the work we’ve been putting in,” point guard Gabby Connally said of the one-two punch with Staiti. “We both get extra work and we’re excited to show what we can do.”

Staying in shape

Staiti didn’t know what to expect with Covid-19 and how long it would keep her away from Georgia’s facilities. She saw it as maybe a week or two, so she didn’t stop. She did workouts each day with trainer Carla McGhee and refined her game with the expertise of an SEC legend and former WNBA player. On top of it, Staiti followed an in-home fitness and conditioning plan from strength-and-conditioning coach Joshua Rucci.

The Lady Bulldogs could not mandate workouts, but Staiti saw it as a requirement to stay in shape. Not a day went by without some sort of planned activity to prepare for a return to basketball.

Fun fact: Even when workouts are finished and Staiti pauses to play Fortnite (mostly with her close friend and teammate Caitlin Hose), she does so under the username of “Hoopergirl14.”

“I didn’t want to sit around,” Staiti said. “I had to stay moving when not playing basketball. Those things can really help me out.”

By June, the players were permitted to return to campus for a gradual ramp-up period and eventual team-wide drills. Once Staiti returned to Athens, Taylor and the coaching staff noticed a different version of their tallest post presence in over a decade. Staiti knew the intense conditioning that would follow, so she surpassed the expectation.

The aspect of conditioning becomes more prominent as Georgia has tweaked its offensive scheme to run faster and have more structure. Staiti believes the new system can allow the defenses to collapse and for her teammates to get open. She could still play a bulk of the minutes too. After all, there weren’t many who expected Staiti to average 33 minutes per game over the last nine contests of last season, either.

“She’s excited about picking up where she left off,” Taylor said. “She's really showed up that way by being in great shape. She looks great and that's a credit to her.”

The preparation

Georgia center Jenna Staiti (14) during the Bulldogs’ practice session at Stegeman Coliseum in Athens, Ga., on Thursday, Oct. 28, 2020. (Photo by Tony Walsh)

It’s going to be different.

Staiti won’t have much open space anymore. It’ll be harder to score in bunches as she did at the end of last season. Her coaches haven’t hesitated to make it a point of emphasis, either.

Staiti has cemented her spot on every opponent’s radar. They’ll see her as one of the SEC’s premier bigs.

“Every time we talk to Jenna, we talk about the double team,” Taylor said. “We say ‘You're going to see two and three people every single time.’”

That extra hurdle demands a heightened sense of awareness. Taylor stresses getting the ball out of Staiti’s hands quickly in regards to scoring. She also has to know the minutiae of handling a double team — when to score within it, pass out of it and get away from it.

The advantage Staiti has is a deep roster of teammates. Unlike past seasons, there could be a viable scoring option at each of the four positions surrounding her. Taylor emphasized Georgia has “the most offensive firepower in a long time.”

“Anytime you put people around her to guard and respect,” Taylor said, highlighting the return of older players and the newcomers in Mikayla Coombs, Sarah Ashlee Barker and Zoesha Smith. “It opens things up for Jenna.”

In order for that to work, Staiti has to remain selfless and find other ways to be productive when not getting touches. Georgia hopes that the uptick in other areas of her game, from snagging offensive rebounds to stretching the defense, lives on.

Staiti might experience a new level of defensive pressure around her. But she sees it as a challenge that offers more opportunity.

“There's a lot more I can do that I didn't last year,” Staiti said. “If I'm not getting the ball right away, I need to go out of the way to get the ball. I need to rebound the ball better. I need to set better screens and get my teammates open. … I have a lot of confidence in myself from where I left off last year.”

Keeping the right mental space

Georgia center Jenna Staiti (14) during the Bulldogs’ practice session at Stegeman Coliseum in Athens, Ga., on Thursday, Oct. 28, 2020. (Photo by Tony Walsh)

It doesn’t take much for Staiti to show emotion. Her mom, Sandi Staiti, has made it clear over the years that her daughter would be a terrible poker player. It makes sense.

Staiti expects the best. She gets frustrated if she doesn’t meet her standard. Tears may flow after a loss. An issue in her personal life might bleed over to the basketball court and affect her level of play.

Staiti realized that her emotions can’t change. Instead, her approach to them can. That’s a big step to her success through one last college basketball campaign.

“I have to leave outside factors off of the basketball court,” Staiti said. “That is something for me that always affected me since I was younger. Keeping those little things off of the court, and go talk to them right away if I have an issue with something. They're open, they'll listen to me. It's important to keep my head straight.”

Like in most areas of life, a strong mental approach is the key for any basketball player. Staiti found the right one to unlock her door to dominance last season. Her conversations with the coaches have been an indicator of growth since she arrived at Georgia during the 2017-18 season.

She might’ve kept things to herself in the beginning. Some worries might have lingered, and in turn, limited her development. She has built a rapport with Taylor, found unbreakable trust and shown consistency to back up an increase in on-court opportunity.

“The biggest thing for Jenna is her mental space,” Taylor said. “When she is focused and locked in, get out of her way.”

From the outside eye, Staiti comes into her fifth year a bit quietly. She wasn’t named to any preseason awards lists and wasn’t a Preseason All-SEC Team honoree. But that’s irrelevant to the Lady Bulldogs.

They know what Staiti’s capabilities are. They’re also awaiting a new focus from opponents. But she still wants more.

The question will soon be answered. Is Staiti ready to make her run of performances something more than a nine-game flash?

“She better be,” Taylor said. “Yes, I think she is.”