Lady Bulldogs get rewarded with family time ahead of conference play

The plans and importance of returning home for Christmas during the Covid-19 pandemic.

Georgia guard Gabby Connally (2), Georgia head coach Joni Taylor during a game against Appalachian State in Athens, Ga., on Tuesday, Dec. 22, 2020. (Photo by Tony Walsh)

If you’re close to Gabby Connally, it’s easy to find Georgia’s senior point guard on campus. You don’t need to call. No need to even text. Show up at the door.

You’ll find the homebody. She’s likely relaxing alongside her roommates if not in a classroom or inside Stegeman Coliseum.

She flew to reunite with her family in San Antonio, Tex. — as the Lady Bulldogs’ farthest holiday traveler — for a brief Christmas trip. Connally will likely be in a similar place. Her parents, Milton and Tina Connally, and her brother Matthew will be lounging alongside her.

Connally’s holiday plans are thought out in advance. Most of it involves a Netflix binge. She wants to re-watch “Grand Army,” a show that Connally has begged her parents to watch. Only mom on this occasion, though, because the men aren’t allowed to this private showing. Once the entire family is invited in, the Connallys are planning to watch “Virgin River,” a popular series recommended by Georgia director of player personnel Katherine Graham.

Naturally, for a hooper, some NBA games and Christmas movies will be viewed, too.

“That's what I'm going to do. I'm going to drink some hot chocolate,” said Connally, who was giddy in Thursday’s press conference after dropping 16 points in a 107-44 win over Appalachian State. “That's about it. I'll wear my pajamas all day.”

A season in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic makes the Lady Bulldogs grateful for every moment. Each victory deserves a celebration — a completed practice, a negative test, a completed game or any memory made. There’s also value in a break for the Christmas holiday. In a normal year, it seems ho-hum to return and spend a few days with family. Georgia, however, has taken plenty of steps to play basketball since arriving on campus in late June.

A chance to leave Athens in 2020 is special and rare.

Each of the Lady Bulldog players, coaches and staff members were free to return to their families after the final non-conference victory over Appalachian State on Dec. 22. It’ll be a short trip. Georgia returns to campus on Dec. 26 ahead of the SEC opener on New Year’s Eve. But it’s needed.

“I think it's extremely important for them to get loved on, be lazy, eat and then come back to get their mind right,” head coach Joni Taylor said. “They've earned this break. I'm happy that they get it.”

Georgia players returned to campus on June 22. They’ve sacrificed a lot since beginning team workouts. They stayed in their hometowns from March to June, and were missing each other when apart. That didn’t mean, however, that convening together came easy given an extensive set of Covid-19 protocols. The Lady Bulldogs have undergone tests three times per week, and thankfully no issues have occurred.

Taylor also limited her players from returning to their families. Unless it was a pre-approved emergency, traveling wasn’t allowed. It didn’t matter if the player resided in San Antonio or an hour-plus up the road in Cumming, Ga. Their family interactions were limited to phone calls and a postgame wave from the Stegeman Coliseum stands.

Some schools aren’t allowing players to leave campus for Christmas. Georgia gave its athletic programs the option. It didn’t take a second to think about it.

“We had a choice, so it wasn't anything I ever considered to keep them here and not allow them to go home for Christmas,” Taylor said. “That was never going to be anything if I could control it. We all have to manage your program the way you think is best for the safety of your student-athletes and their mental health.”

Connally gets her lounging time with family. Her 1,000-point commemorative basketball will be back in her sights, too.

Malury Bates, a redshirt junior forward, hasn’t been back to see her family in Richmond, Va. in two or three years.

“I'll be happy to just see their faces and be together in-person,” Bates said.

Staiti cherishes time with her loved ones in Forsyth County. There’s excitement to see her parents, younger sister and older brother, but the 6-foot-4 senior has a favorite under her family’s roof. That’s the two family dogs — Suzie and Auto.

Taylor’s ask of her players is to be cognizant of their surroundings and wear masks while in public. Georgia coaches have held Zoom meetings with parents throughout the season’s early stages about coronavirus protocol. They’ve all been receptive, Taylor said, and understand the priority on health and safety.

“We didn't know if we would be able to go home with our families,” Staiti said. “We're super blessed to have that time, then we'll get right back to it on the 26th.”

Georgia returns to campus on Saturday, the day after the Christmas festivities conclude. That’s the same as any other season, but the pandemic had to throw an obstacle … because, of course, what else would you expect in 2020?  The Lady Bulldogs will go into a brief quarantine while awaiting test results. Once they return negatively, Georgia can resume practice as normal.

Many programs have had issues over the season’s first month with virus outbreaks and game postponements and cancellations. Georgia hasn’t been in that group and has played eight non-conference games (winning them all, by the way). The team’s lone cancellation came on Dec. 12 due to positive tests within Radford’s program.

Despite the worry, Georgia is trusting in its veteran leadership for the traveling to occur safely.

“It's time with them,” Taylor said. “That's what I'm looking forward to the most. Christmas Day, obviously, is a lot of fun. I'm not sure who is more excited to get gifts — (Taylor’s young daughters) Jacie, Drew or the dog.”

For a brief four-day period, basketball is set to the side. The mind can escape to hot chocolate-filled lazy days with frequent Netflix shows on the television.

A Christmas back home means a bit of normalcy in a pandemic-ravaged season. Once Dec. 26 comes however, Georgia awaits a safe reunion with its own family. There’s an exciting conference slate looming, after all.

“Gabby will be here for just a few days, but we’re looking forward to it,” Milton Connally said. “We will get her back to UGA so they can get back in a groove and hopefully make a run for the ages.”