The Buzzer: Caldwell finds groove and the significance of a blowout win over Georgia State
Takeaways from Thursday's 85-51 victory that moved the Lady Bulldogs to 6-0.
ATHENS, Ga. — Georgia can say its runs the state.
The Lady Bulldogs won their opener at Mercer. They prevailed in an overtime squeaker at Georgia Tech. A three-game sweep over Peach State foes concluded on Thursday night as Georgia (6-0) routed Georgia State, 85-51.
“Every time we play another team from Georgia and come out on top, it's a great win for us,” senior guard Maya Caldwell said. “We like to remind everyone that UGA is the top dog.”
Georgia dominated. We know that it’s Georgia State. It’s a Sun Belt opponent that doesn’t match up to the firepower of the SEC that the Lady Bulldogs will face from January to March. But Georgia is convincingly taking care of business against the teams it should, and that’s significant.
Georgia rarely faced a rough patch Thursday night. Mikayla Coombs did her usual thing off of the bench as a multi-faceted weapon who makes the Lady Bulldogs tick. The young players joined in on the fun. It’s a good sign for the team in red and black when senior point guard Gabby Connally — who used to be counted on for scoring in bunches — can score seven points in a 34-point win.
“We want to dictate pace and value possessions,” said head coach Joni Taylor, who is off to her best start since leading the 2017-18 team to an undefeated spurt to open non-conference play. “We've really focused on limiting turnovers, and we had too many over our first three games. We're getting a better feel and taking care of the ball.”
Welcome to “The Buzzer.” The Lady Bulldogs didn’t play perfectly. There’s a lot to improve on before competition toughens. Nonetheless, the recent wins have come in impressive fashion.
Let’s dig in.
Value of the dimer
Twenty-two of Georgia’s 31 made field goals came off of assists. Whether the Lady Bulldogs were in a half-court set or running full speed in their transition-heavy offense, the players always seeked out a teammate.
Many of them led to easy buckets. Some were simple. Some had flash, and Coombs brought many of those with some behind-the-back dishes that drew some awe from the Stegeman Coliseum crowd.
“I love when everybody is involved,” Caldwell said. “That extra pass goes a long way. That makes all five players at our best.”
Sixteen assists came from the trio of Caldwell, Coombs and senior wing Que Morrison, who led the group with seven of them in only 14 minutes of play. Some of those passes, too, weren’t logged as assists and led to foul opportunities.
Georgia’s offense possesses firepower regardless, especially with its inside-out game and up-tempo style of play. It’s able to fully tick when the Lady Bulldogs like to share the sugar.
More often than not, it happens. It could be a key factor if Georgia is ready for a deep run through SEC play with its experienced roster.
“Everybody contributed tonight,” senior Jenna Staiti said. “Joni says that they don't know which weapon we'll use, because there are so many.”
No issues for Que Morrison after leaving game
At the media timeout midway through the second quarter, Morrison slowly walked off of the court with her hands on her hips. She had a strong game, playing with the usual spark she provides, while recording five points and the aforementioned seven assists.
That moment with 4:13 remaining in the half created some concern. Oh no.
Morrison went back to the locker room and quickly returned to the bench with a sports drink. A few minutes later, Morrison went back to the locker room and didn’t return for the game’s remainder.
Over her four seasons with the program, Morrison has suffered a shoulder, knee and foot injury. Her mother, Tonja Morrison, jokingly told the Lady Bulldogs Report that “We’re done with injuries. She’s injured every body part.”
A sigh of relief. Nothing to be concerned about with Morrison.
“Que had a final and a paper due today,” Taylor said. “She didn't eat properly and got a little winded and weak. I think it's just attributed to finishing finals, because she's grinding it out in grad school. She's completely fine.”
As expected, the Covid-19 pandemic leads Georgia to take extra precautions. Georgia’s medical staff performed a temperature screening on Morrison and all returned OK. But she remained isolated through a half of play.
“Everything checked out fine,” Taylor said. “There wasn't a need to put her back in the game.”
‘She’s a hooper’
Over weeks of preseason practice, Caldwell made jokes out of a frustrating situation. The senior guard, who balances her vibrant personality with having lofty expectations, couldn’t find her consistent stroke.
The team’s Instagram story would post Caldwell making a 3-pointer, and she’d jokingly respond with “That’s about the only one I made today,” or something of the sort.
She puts in a lot of time working on the shot. Extra time is spent in the gym. Caldwell wants to get it right. She was shooting 32% from the field and 10% from the 3-point line entering Thursday’s game.
Caldwell does a lot of things consistently. You’ll constantly find her running the floor. She’s quick and wants to help the Lady Bulldogs win. She just couldn’t find her own spot in the stat sheet.
“About 97% of my focus goes into working on my shot. I've had some misses and in-and-out shots. I'm working on it,” Caldwell said. “I work on it as much as I can. Until, really, I'm satisfied. I can't even tell you how many shots I put up. In practice, we do shooting drills, and it might be 50 3s and 25 free throws. I have to stay in there longer sometimes. I’m waiting on it to fall.”
Caldwell got rewarded against Georgia State — at least a bit. She only made one 3-point shot on three attempts, but posted 16 points while shooting 50% from the field. Nine of those points came in the first half and five came from the free-throw stripe.
Caldwell found a way to work inside and score in the paint, with a couple of and-1 chances, too.
It’s Caldwell’s second-best performance of the season, topping 16 points against Oklahoma on Dec. 6.
“It's so fun to watch her play. You know she's running the floor every time,” Staiti said. “I'm so happy for her. I just love her. She's a hooper.”
Do we need to talk about Jenna Staiti again? You know it.
The dominant senior did her thing again. Staiti recorded 16 points and 10 rebounds against a Georgia State team that was undersized and had rebounding problems. It almost seems ho-hum for Staiti to lead her team in scoring, because, well, it’s what she averages.
Staiti wanted to nit-pick her day. You can expect that from Staiti. She didn’t like her defensive performance and wanted to make adjustments. But in a 34-point win, what can be wrong with a double-double?
Not much. She had three blocks in the first three-and-a-half minutes, too.
But Staiti only had four points in the first half. She erupted through the final 20 minutes of regulation. Staiti looked like herself with 12 points and six rebounds.
“I need to come out in the third quarter, no matter what happens in the first half, and perform,” Staiti said. “There's an energy I bring to the team. I had some fouls and got frustrated, but snapped out of it.”
Staiti has raised her averages to 15 points and 8.2 rebounds per game.
What does a blowout win do for Georgia?
Georgia’s two wins over Power Five programs — Georgia Tech and Oklahoma — served as strides as the team finished out close victories. Those were strong tests for what lies ahead in SEC play.
The other victories have come against lesser-talented, mid-major opponents. Georgia won on Thursday night by its largest margin of victory this season. In a game where very little goes wrong, what can there be to take away?
More than you might think.
“We need to focus on being able to do the little things right. That's what's going to be there in SEC play,” Staiti said. “If we aren't doing it right now, then we won't in conference play. We need to take advantage of these games, run our systems the right way and perfect it as much as we can.”
Georgia’s camaraderie is strong. Staiti said it’s the best group through her four years as a Lady Bulldog. They’ve set egos aside and set a collective goal of making a postseason run with a roster of experienced players. There’s always something to improve, though.
A game like Thursday’s — and the three remaining in non-conference play — can allow the Lady Bulldogs to work on things. They can experiment and improve. Staiti said Georgia needs to communicate better. She thinks the team can become a “very good” defensive squad with improved communication.
After a big win, Georgia watches tape as if it’s a scoreless game. There’s always a facet that the Lady Bulldogs can be better at.
“Every win is a stepping stone. We go up, up and up,” Caldwell said. “There are things to learn and clean up, but we take what we can get and move forward.”
After the buzzer
Freshman guard Sarah Ashlee Barker recorded a double-double with 10 points and 12 rebounds (!) in 21 minutes against the Panthers. I’ll have more on Barker to come, but for now, I’ll leave you with Caldwell’s reaction: “Sheesh.”
Sophomore forward Maori Davenport played in the final minutes Thursday. She was deemed eligible as an undergraduate transfer as the NCAA Division I Council granted a blanket waiver for one-time transfers on Dec. 16.
Georgia received twelve votes in the AP Top 25 after receiving three votes in the week prior.
Forward Malury Bates posted a plus-minus of +17 in 19 minutes of play. She added six points and four rebounds.
Georgia cut down on its turnover total as it committed only 14. The Lady Bulldogs scored 27 points off of 19 Georgia State miscues.
Georgia had 34 points off of its bench and 11 of 12 players scored — minus Davenport. “That’s what makes us dangerous,” Taylor said.
Next: Georgia hosts Furman on Sunday, Dec. 20 at 2 p.m. at Stegeman Coliseum. The Paladins (2-4) are coming off of a 81-28 win over Converse College. Georgia State beat Furman, 78-59 on Dec. 6 in Atlanta. Georgia won its last meeting over the Paladins in 2019, 77-48, and are 16-0 in the overall series.