This Lady Bulldog team is legitimately good. Georgia knows it can take the next step, too.
It's time to pay attention. Georgia showed a special quality late in its win over Oklahoma.
ATHENS, Ga. (in-person!) — Joni Taylor walked into Stegeman Coliseum as the sun rose on Sunday for morning shootaround. She had more than a hunch.
Georgia’s head coach knew Oklahoma’s capabilities. She didn’t disregard the Sooners by any means, because they did have the nation’s best 3-point shooter in Taylor Robertson, after all. But Taylor did believe a few factors would come into play. Oklahoma had lesser depth and had to cancel three of its non-conference games due to Covid-19, so it hadn’t played since opening the season on Nov. 25.
“I knew if we played (our brand) of basketball and Oklahoma played basketball, we were going to win,” Taylor said. “That’s the confidence we have right now.”
No cockiness on Georgia’s end. It simply knew its strengths and the potential it held within its 11-deep rotation that swaps groups of players out like a hockey line. The key difference is that there’s little, if any, dip in production from the Lady Bulldogs.
Georgia and Oklahoma played a back-and-forth physical slugfest on Sunday afternoon. Runs were made and answered. Play looked sloppy at times. Headed into the final quarter of play, the teams were deadlocked. The Lady Bulldogs had been here before — rather frequently, actually — over the past two seasons.
Georgia had been in this spot time and time again. It had trouble finishing. A senior-laden team wasn’t going to let that happen this time.
“It’s 0-0,” sophomore Jordan Isaacs said as the team huddled up during the timeout. She didn’t see the floor in the fourth quarter, but played an integral role in shifting team morale. “Everything else that happened prior didn't matter. It matters what happens here.”
“We were ready to go back out there,” senior Maya Caldwell said. “We knew we could count on each other.”
After two woeful quarters in which Georgia relinquished its lead, the Lady Bulldogs looked like a new team. More like the group that erupted for 29 first-quarter points and a double-digit lead. Their legs were fresher. The defense kept taking the same Waffle House orders for Oklahoma’s hashbrowns — scattered, smothered and covered.
Georgia’s shots were falling, too. Gabby Connally nearly doubled her total scoring output in 10 minutes with 14 points. Freshman Sarah Ashlee Barker — who soon might earn the nickname of second-half assassin — came alive and hit a crucial 3-point shot to create distance from Oklahoma.
A tie game nearly became a rout. Georgia (4-0) won its home opener, 93-80, to add a statement victory to its resume in the SEC vs. Big 12 challenge.
“This shows us what we're capable of,” Connally said, who scored 29 points for her highest total since notching 37 in a win over Texas A&M as a freshman. “We are able to pull out close games in the end.”
Over four contests, the strides made by the Lady Bulldogs are evident in nearly every area of the game. Two of those wins were against Mercer and East Carolina, certainly, but the two wins over Power Five teams over the past week prove that this isn’t the same Georgia basketball team that struggled over the past two years.
The thrilling victories over Georgia Tech and Oklahoma, albeit not at the level of the SEC’s elite competition, show that the Lady Bulldogs can finish games in convincing fashion. They do it with lockdown defense and an offensive spurt.
“We’ve proven to stay level headed,” Connally said. “Nothing is going to be easy. Nothing is going to be given. But we've shown we can pull it out.”
These Lady Bulldogs are a threat. They’re tightly-knit. They’re legitimately good. It’s early, yes, with 21 games to go. But qualities present itself to argue that this is Taylor’s best team since becoming head coach and assuming the responsibility of continuing a program’s rich legacy.
The obvious quality leading to success is Georgia’s depth. Nine players logged significant minutes against the Sooners, and that rotation can even expand to 12. Sophomore guard Chloe Chapman, too, will add a boost when able to return from a knee injury.
The coaching staff’s strong recruiting classes are starting to result in on-court production. One former highly-rated prospect can come out, and a substitution who had a five-star rating next to her name can come in. Georgia only scored 20 bench points on Sunday as three starters led the scoring load. But two bench guards, Barker and Mikayla Coombs, played all 10 minutes of the final period. It’s only their fourth game in a Georgia uniform.
Georgia turned that depth into tiring Oklahoma. Same with Georgia Tech. The Lady Bulldogs could run faster, rebound stronger, get more lift on their shots and emerge as the stronger team.
“We can continue to wear you down,” Taylor said. “We need to continue to have those options that you see.”
That’s a quality that Georgia didn’t possess over recent seasons, and a strength that mirrors the 2017-18 run to a No. 4 seed in the NCAA tournament.
“The depth is arguably my favorite part of this team,” Caldwell said. “We know that everybody can come into the game and contribute. It's very beneficial for us, because it's hard to guard 8, 9 and 10 people.”
Let’s not be all sunshine and rainbows here, either. Georgia is good. It is better. It is not great. That’s what the team strives for. Taylor and her players want that. They have an “edge,” Taylor said, to achieve that. But everyone knows this team isn’t there yet.
There are some turnover woes. Georgia missed its share of inside shots. The middle quarters of its games haven’t been as strong as the first and last periods. The 3-point shot hasn’t been a viable threat in most of the early-season games. Some of those critiques are due to the nature of basketball, but Georgia can improve on all of them.
What gets it there? A strong team camaraderie. Another area where Georgia hadn’t been at its strongest.
There has been a call for the team to show more effort and togetherness this season. That’s the root of the “Show Up” mantra, regardless of how coachspeak-y or cliche it may become. It matters to Georgia and is translating onto the basketball court.
Over the last two seasons, Georgia showed its youth. After making the NCAA tournament run, Georgia became the youngest team in the SEC and one of the most-inexperienced nationally. There were times when the Lady Bulldogs didn’t practice well. They admitted into not fully buying into the system as the season began. It took time to find footing, because Georgia players weren’t fully attentive to the coaches’ attention. Repetitively, the players emphasized that they “needed to listen better.”
Four graduate students are on the roster now. They lead drills and meetings. The upperclassmen have become an extension of Taylor, because Georgia wants to reach its goal. Taylor, after last season ended, said there’s “no excuse” to not be successful.
“Our entire team is very coachable this year,” Taylor said. “That's what makes it fun and why it looks the way it looks when you watch us play.”
Georgia needs to improve. It needs to avoid the injury bug. It needs to see development from its younger players. If those factors fall into place, Georgia’s coach said her team “will be fun to watch.”
Maybe Georgia deserves a bit more credit. This team can compete in the SEC. There’ll be some early tests, too, with Mississippi State and South Carolina in the first three conference games, but that’s a bit down the road for Georgia.
For now, Georgia has proven to be a team primed to earn a tournament berth. It could even finish in the top half of the SEC.
Much of that is because the Lady Bulldogs can expect to win. They haven’t been able to do that in quite a while.
“We will get focused and locked in,” Caldwell said. “Any game. Any team. It's a battle.”