There are plenty of basketball movies in which the intensity grows around the end of a big-time game. As the camera zooms in, a player makes a 3-point shot, a raucous crowd erupts en route to a victory and the ending is all-too-predictable.
It took place inside Stegeman Coliseum on Sunday afternoon and Taja Cole wrote Georgia’s Hollywood script. Except this wasn’t staged, scripted or even believable.
Georgia was on its way to finishing off a valiant comeback against 13th-ranked Tennessee, and the Lady Bulldogs’ junior point guard knew her team needed a spark. With that, Cole decided to go on a shooting streak. In a span of three minutes, 45 seconds, a 5-foot-8 guard known for her assists became like Superman saving Metropolis — or Zac Efron in High School Musical, whichever connection you choose to draw.
Cole’s third-and-final 3-pointer of the streak was Georgia’s most thrilling: Cole took a shot with eight seconds remaining, missed and Tennessee corralled the rebound. Caliya Robinson, Georgia’s leading producer with 16 points and six blocks, recorded a steal and found Cole immediately. Another try, different result as it was true and led to a 66-62 win.
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“I’m trying to do whatever I can to give my teammates that spark and energy,” Cole said. “I knew we needed a big-time spark, and I didn’t hesitate to take it. I put in my hours, so I have confidence in my shot.”
Cole’s guard counterpart Gabby Connally said “big-time players make big-time plays,” and that proved to be the case. She was mobbed at midcourt, Georgia’s bench was as lively as it had been all season and 5,867 fans brought one of the loudest roars for a women’s basketball game (in recent history, at least).
Teresa Edwards, one of the 40 alumni in attendance for Sunday’s victory and the most decorated player in Georgia history, was making an appearance on ESPN at the time and couldn’t temper excitement: “Booyah! You guys need to get me off the mic.”
It took a closely-contested fourth quarter led by the frontcourt efforts of Robinson and Jenna Staiti to finish it off, but Georgia had done it. Against one of the most-prolific programs in women’s basketball history, the Lady Bulldogs had come back from a 17-point deficit to allow a crowd of rare proportions to chant “U-G-A” as victory was cemented. Georgia improves to 10-0 at home for the first time since 2014-15.
Robinson, who has experienced beating Tennessee in a close game at home for the second time, reached such a level of elation that she lost awareness of her surroundings. She skipped into the media room and belted out “LET’S GO, BABY. TWO IN A ROW,” then paused and finished with “oh, I’m sorry y’all.” Edwards also ran in during media interviews and high-fived players joined with an “Atta baby,” and her exuberance made it seem like it were her playing days from 1983-86.
The excitement was warranted from the players and coaches to the fans in attendance. While not having a desired start to its season, Georgia saw a glimpse of its past. The Final Four banners throughout the arena are hoisted in the arena’s rafters, and it’s not to say Georgia is remotely close to returning to that mark with a 12-5 record. But it saw the result of success.
Attention similar to the days of when Andy Landers led the Lady Bulldogs to nationally-acclaimed success. He was in attendance for this one, too.
“This is the expectation,” fourth-year head coach Joni Taylor said. “This is Georgia basketball. It is what is expected of you when you are here, when you are on staff, when you wear that uniform. It’s the standard. For our alumni to be here today and help us celebrate this win is special.”
Georgia looked like a different team in each half. The first looked like Lady Bulldog basketball at its worst as Georgia couldn’t find a semblance of rhythm. A 24 percent shooting percentage as opposed to a 36-point output from the Lady Volunteers told that tale. Taylor even told her team “they’re playing their best, and we’re playing our worst.” It led to the second half where a unique energy allowed connections to Georgia’s famed success to be drawn.
For those recruited to the program, it was the potential for that level of support conveyed by Taylor and the coaching staff. It marked the first time they’d seen an atmosphere to such a magnitude in their careers.
“This is how I want it to be,” Cole said. “We had an upper bowl today, and we haven’t had that since I’ve been here. I wanted my teammates to play with that fight and passion so (fans) can come back.”
Added Connally: “It’s even more than what I thought it would be.”
As exhilarating as the win was for Georgia, it knows that this streak of wins (six-of-seven) must turn into consistent production if it wants to make an NCAA tournament run for the second-consecutive season. The SEC’s youngest team has begun to see things click, and Robinson said it took place after returning from a brief holiday break.
Georgia finds itself out of tournament contention after being a No. 4 seed last season. After an unstable start and four non-conference losses, the Lady Bulldogs carried an RPI of 108 entering Sunday’s play and are out of ESPN Charlie Creme’s bracket projection.
“We know what we can do,” Connally said. “This win here tonight shows that we’ve been capable of this all year. We don’t care too much about what people have to tell us, but we’re focused on what the coaches tell us and executing the game plan.”
Those capabilities are beginning to show, as are results of the Lady Bulldogs jelling. Georgia coaches have been admittedly tough on their players after an early-season reality check, but are now reaping the rewards.
“I am happy for them,” Taylor said. “They are starting to grow up, now it is all about being consistent.”
Taylor’s caution comes as a result of Georgia’s movie script only being half written. This heroic shot wasn’t to reach the goal, but to inch closer. One player, however, is confident in how an ending could transpire.
“Just don’t take us for granted,” Robinson said.