The best Lady Bulldog team in Taylor era is blossoming on quest to continue rich history

Georgia players have used the term 'special' to describe the team's run, which continued with a 57-55 win over Tennessee.

Georgia head coach Joni Taylor, Georgia guard Gabby Connally (2) during a game against Tennessee at Stegeman Coliseum in Athens, Ga., on Sunday, Feb. 21, 2021. (Photo by Tony Walsh — Georgia Sports Communications)

ATHENS, Ga. — The final horn blared through Stegeman Coliseum and the lights flashed above the backboards. Jordan Isaacs pumped her fists and screamed in elation after Georgia wrapped up a last-second season sweep of arch rival Tennessee. She gazed upward.

The celebratory moments concluded with players running through the team’s tunnel and waving to fans in attendance who rooted them on. Each time they focused on the stands, their eyes went skyward.

Head coach Joni Taylor sat down for a radio interview with play-by-play announcer Jeff Dantzler. Regardless of which side of the arena Taylor faced, the program history hanging in the rafters could be seen in her periphery.

No matter where the Lady Bulldogs looked in those moments after a thrilling, signature-marking 57-55 victory, it carried a reminder if they peeked above them.

Former player silhouettes were on one side of the arena. A series of postseason banners and the retired numbers of Teresa Edwards and Janet Harris hung directly across. They all told the same story of legacy: Thirty-three NCAA tournament appearances, 11 Elite Eights, 11 SEC championships and 5 Final Fours.

“I get emotional because I know the work that has been done in this program,” Taylor said after picking up her fifth down-to-the-wire win of the season. “Not only us, but the players who came before us and (Georgia legendary head coach Andy) Landers. I guarantee I'll have a text later on from Teresa Edwards, Lady Grooms and Mary Beth Smart. It will go on and on because the love they have is real. They're just as happy as were.”

Georgia (17-4, 9-4 SEC) has put itself in a position to make a postseason run and add the 2020-21 group into program lore.

The Lady Bulldogs swept Tennessee for the first time since 1985. They went on to play for a national title that season. This group, with immense depth, defensive durability and talented pieces, believed in itself to have success from the moment practices began in October. Those qualities are present at a higher level than ever before under Taylor.

Sunday’s win confirmed to those outside of the program what the Lady Bulldogs already knew. There’s potential and it’s starting to come into form.

“I know that we're special. We have a lot of fight to us,” senior guard Gabby Connally said. “We never give up. We can not only compete with anybody, but win. … It’s hard to stop us.”

Fellow senior Maya Caldwell painted the picture with two words in an Instagram story post on Sunday evening: “Rewriting history.”

The season sweep over Tennessee, in which both games modeled those classic games, served as a stepping stone and a moment of validation in its quest. Georgia has its eyes set on a deep run, and played most of the 40 minutes against the Lady Vols as if Georgia fought for its final breath.

Georgia smothered Tennessee defensively by denying shots and forcing 20 turnovers. It dove for every loose ball. The players exuded effort on nearly every possession, and it symbolized the hunger that the Lady Bulldogs possess. It narrowed the definition of the term “Georgia basketball” that is oft-used by Taylor with a broad meaning.

Georgia, according to Her Hoop Stats, has a defensive rating of 75, which is fifth-best nationally. The metric includes the Lady Bulldogs strong defensive statistics — 59.1 points per game (1st in SEC), 36.5% shooting average (1st), 26.5% from the 3-point-line (1st) and 6.4 blocks (2nd). Two regular season games remain and Georgia sits at No. 3 in the SEC standings.

“I'm really glad we're setting that tone,” Connally said. “(Taylor) asks us what we want to be remembered for. This is it. We want to be that standard.”

The Lady Bulldogs proved yet again that they can now finish games, too. Georgia won its fifth game that came down to the final moments. On Sunday, a block by Isaacs and rebound by junior Mikayla Coombs iced another win over Tennessee.

Georgia has as many wins as it did a season ago with 10 fewer games played. If you aren’t one to pay attention to women’s basketball, now might be the time to check in on what’s brewing in Athens. With each passing win, the Lady Bulldogs are setting off the “watch out” alarm.

“What Joni has done with this team has been such an exceptional coaching job,” Landers said in a phone call to the Lady Bulldogs Report while in-studio doing analysis for ESPN. “These players are so enjoyable to watch. That’s what I enjoy the most. They’re unselfish, and you know that because they put a lot of effort on the defensive side.”

Georgia’s soaring return to prominence comes after two seasons of missing the NCAA tournament. It went 18-12 during the 2018-19 campaign after falling in the opening round of the SEC tournament and falling off of the proverbial bubble. Taylor followed it up with a 17-14 record last season, which was cut short due to the pandemic after stringing together important victories at the end of the year.

Questions arose about the program’s trajectory, but Taylor didn’t waver. The two-year lull followed a similar record to this season in 2017-18, which resulted in a No. 4 seed and hosting the tournament’s opening rounds. Georgia’s coaching staff, which has been the same personnel since Taylor took over for Landers in 2015, had a plan for the program which was molded around the winning legacy with a new footprint.

“We knew what we were capable of, and now we're seeing it come to fruition. That's our hard work and dedication,” Connally said. “We didn't quit on each other. Nobody said ‘Oh, we aren't winning, so let's leave.’ We bought into what the coaches were saying to us.

“That's what you're seeing when the lights come on. Nobody sees what's said or done in the dark.”

A semblance of panic never existed as Taylor entered her sixth season. She knew her tenure wasn’t too lengthy in the perspective of recruiting classes. The Lady Bulldogs continued to sign their share of five-star prospects, but had to wait for depth, chemistry and experience to jell.

Georgia builds its program around a player-first approach. Taylor wants to find the correct character fit on the recruiting trail, and will turn down a talented player if she does not meet the Lady Bulldogs’ standard. Once her players arrive on campus, life is placed ahead of sport and the coaches try to enrich the daily lives of each player.

Taylor has always envisioned those qualities as the recipe to success. Now, her first headlining recruiting class in 2017 — Caldwell, Connally and Que Morrison — find themselves in tournament position once again. Their careers are bookended with Georgia’s vision coming into focus.

“(Our recent success) confirms that we can ‘stick to what you do.’ We had a certain way we want to build this program, and these girls play with their heart,” Taylor said. “They're extremely talented and smart, but they play because of the love they have for each other. It's hard to beat that when they keep it front of mind.”

Georgia’s run of prosperity leads Taylor and her staff to land upper-echelon talent on the recruiting trail, too. A team effort of Taylor, recruiting coordinator Chelsea Newton, associate head coach Karen Lange and assistant coach Robert Mosley landed a strong incoming class.

The Lady Bulldogs have a four-deep signing class, including five-star Reigan Richardson, four-star Jillian Hollingshead, three-star Kimora Jenkins and Netherlands product Alina Sendar joining the program over the summer. Georgia also has Coombs, a transfer from UConn, returning next season.

Once the seniors depart, Georgia will start anew. But the current group on their farewell tour have put the Lady Bulldogs in a spot to ensure that the program’s trajectory is a path rather than a blip.

“It's what coach Joni is building here and a lot of people will want to be a part of it,” Connally said. “We want to be what attracts recruits coming in. They see how we play and that we come out on the winning side of things.”

“(Taylor) has been successful, is successful and is going to continue to be successful,” Landers said. “She has the qualities you look for that I would want my daughter around on a daily basis.”

Those coming into the program, even if they’re from a thousand miles north, were tuned into Sunday’s action inside Stegeman Coliseum. One of the signees saw the vision preached during the recruiting process unfold in a 40-minute game.

“Each game makes me more and more excited to play for a team that plays with so much passion and connection and grit,” Jenkins said. “This win meant so much to this program because it shows we’re building the right way. We’re getting closer to how successful we were in the past.”

Sunday’s win gave Georgia a taste of a special run. The potential instilled within the group has blossomed into 17 wins and a position to control its own destiny.

But more basketball remains, and Taylor said her players can only rest at the end. The finish line isn’t until March. Then, the Lady Bulldogs can gaze toward the banners again.

“We've put ourselves in a good place, but we're still a work in progress,” Morrison said. “There's still basketball to play.”