Why Stephanie Paul's legacy as a Lady Bulldog can be remembered for perseverance

The recent alumna almost called it quits after nagging knee complications.

Note: This opens a two-part series of stories highlighting recent Lady Bulldog alumni. The next installment will feature Ari Henderson.

Stephanie Paul’s knee pain had relief entering her senior season at Georgia. For the first time in nearly two years, she felt healthy enough to fully participate and perform well. That confidence only lasted one full practice.

Before stepping onto the court for the second session, Paul’s knee swelled up. She’s not one to show frustration, but this became the boiling point. She knew a struggle to recover would follow, and the Lady Bulldogs’ coaching staff said their starting forward couldn’t practice for about two weeks.

None of her teammates battled a nagging knee ailment that didn’t have a true diagnosis. Only Paul, and it served as a major setback. On that October afternoon prior to the 2019-20 season, the tears flowed.

Not this again.

“I was tired of it,” said Paul, who contemplated redshirting. “I wanted to be around the game, but didn’t want to play anymore. I felt like I couldn’t be at my best.”

Paul’s desire to finish strong won over the moments of doubt. She prayed, sought advice from assistant coach Robert Mosley and her close friend Maya Caldwell. She termed it “One Last Dance,” but it was far from an easy one. A player in her early 20s had worn-down knees, and by no fault of Paul’s own. Her years in basketball dealt an unfortunate card, but Caldwell reminded Paul that “you can’t just quit.”

The knee issues started ahead of her sophomore year. She had to sit out five games during 2017-18, in fact, due to complications. Paul’s ailments are the result of worn-down cartilage. Essentially, the bones rub against each other during any movement. She continued to play at 65-to-70 percent over the final legs of her career, and that had to be her version of 100 percent.

Paul powered through her senior year, and head coach Joni Taylor called her the “spark plug.” Paul gave Georgia smaller advantages — a rebound, putback basket, hustle and other facets of the game that weren’t so glorious.

“Everybody cheered for her because they knew the struggles she went through,” Taylor said during SEC play. “She was constantly in rehab. When you see someone commit to the process and see success, you’re happy for them.”

Once more, Paul had to overcome a lot of obstacles in order to take the Stegeman Coliseum court each night. She wore a Normatec leg recovery system sleeve to sleep each night, spent more time on a bike than in active practice drills and nearly made the treatment area her living space.

For those reasons, Paul’s legacy can be tied to perseverance. She almost gave it up, but continued to perform. A senior-year stat line of 6.4 points and 4.5 rebounds per game isn’t the flashiest, and Paul knows those totals could be higher with healthy knees. Her most important statistic, however, is 31 starts. Paul didn’t hang it up or shy away from pain, but instead made the most of a final season.

“It has been a gift that God has given me,” Paul said. “I probably wouldn't be able to do a lot of things I've done without the sport. It's just fun.”

In order for Paul to start each game, Georgia had to strategize. The 6-foot forward had to find ways to maintain value throughout her senior season — well, the final three years of Paul’s career. Early on, the Lady Bulldogs limited activity by eliminating tip drills and only doing a couple of full-court drills each day. There would be a stretch where Paul would practice one day, then sit out the next.

She’d alternate that pattern with spending time on an exercise bike or trips to the weight room with strength-and-conditioning coach Joshua Rucci. During SEC play, Paul only practiced with scout team to prepare the other rotation players for an upcoming opponent.

If not practicing or staying in shape, Paul could be found in the training room. Maria White, the team’s athletic trainer, became best friends with Paul. They did a variety of treatments. A few worked to varying degrees, others failed. A series of platelet-rich plasma (PRP) injections improved Paul’s bill of health ahead of her senior season, and laser treatments followed during SEC play.

“It became more manageable (with the laser treatment),” Paul said. That was one of the more successful treatments I've done.”

Through the stress of pain and rehab, Paul found a way to power through. She’s a dancer and not afraid to show it. A bulk of her free time is spent by jamming to any hit — a lot of electronic dance music (EDM) tunes — and allowing her teammates to join along. Paul had an Instagram account and posted frequently throughout the season. Those moments gave the coined “One Last Dance” term a literal meaning.

A chance to bop brought Paul joy. It fueled her through a tough senior season, and she wouldn’t “have had as much fun” without it. At times, the coaches told Paul to tone down the dancing because much of it involved her legs. She improvised, and found other ways to dance.

Not only did it help Paul, but it allowed her teammates to turn away from a heavy moment. A tough stretch became easier once a Lady Bulldog saw Paul turn on some music.

“She brought light to others,” said Mackenzie Engram, who played with Paul for two seasons. “You'd walk in after a stressful day and see her dancing. You couldn't help but join her.”

Now that Paul has played her final game as a Lady Bulldog, she’s returning to Athens for graduate school. She’s pursuing a degree in nonprofit management and leadership. Paul also hopes to intern with the athletic department, and currently serves on the diversity council. She’ll probably be spotted around the women’s basketball offices at times, too.

Paul has desires to stay around basketball, potentially as a future coach. She attended a workshop (turned virtual due to the pandemic) with the Women’s Basketball Coaches Association. Paul is a big advocate for racial representation, too, and sees the recent hires at Duke, Notre Dame and Mississippi State as strong examples. Paul also expressed gratitude to be coached by Taylor, who stressed the importance of building relationships in the coaching profession.

“The many black women coaching (in college women’s basketball) have given me hope to succeed in a white male-dominated profession,” Paul said.

Through a new journey, Paul won’t forget the challenges of her last one. She’s proud to have persevered through a playing career at Georgia.

“I wish my knees were in a different situation,” Paul said. “I didn't do as much as I wanted on the court. I did the best I could, though.”

Contact: Brandon Sudge can be found on Twitter (@brandonsudge and @ladydogsreport). You can reach Brandon via e-mail at brandon@ladydogsreport.com.

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Feature photo credit: Georgia forward Stephanie Paul during a game against Mercer at Stegeman Coliseum on Nov. 19, 2019. (Courtesy of Tony Walsh — Georgia Sports Communications)
In-text photo credit: Paul on the bench during a game against USC Upstate on Nov. 26, 2019. (Courtesy of Kristin M. Bradshaw — Georgia Sports Communications)

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