Bulldogs Beat

Lady Bulldogs’ Caldwell looks to her feet for strength after months of doubt, struggle

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Georgia Lady Bulldogs 2018-2019 season

After an impressive 2017-2018 season, the Lady Bulldogs led by head coach Joni Taylor hope to capitalize on their success this year. Check out some of the highlights from the 2018-2019 season.

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Maya Caldwell broke free from a defender, had a wide-open layup and missed it as it rolled off the rim and trickled out of bounds. She had made five straight of the variety, so some frustration would’ve been reasonable. Instead, the Georgia sophomore looked down at her shoes and slapped the soles.

Caldwell sported a pair of deep pink sneakers emblazoned with the impossible-to-miss Nike swoosh. Her meaningful cue, however, came inches above on the toe overlay. On each foot, Caldwell wrote out her two favorite bible verses with a small-print Sharpie marker. It serves as a go-to for reassurance throughout a game.

Left foot, Psalm 27:14: “Wait for the Lord; be strong, take heart and wait for the Lord.”

Right foot, Jeremiah 29:11: “For I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord, plans to prosper you, and not harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.”

“These are reminders for me whenever my head is down,” Caldwell said. “I can pick my head up, because I know my time is coming based on faith.”

Her call to use those reminders against Florida paid off as Caldwell’s 11 points and four rebounds served as a significant contribution toward Georgia’s (14-9, 5-5 SEC) 93-58 walloping of its big-time conference rival. They have also been integral for Caldwell throughout the season as the words “wait” and “future” describe her biggest challenges.

Caldwell entered the season with a prime opportunity to start for the Lady Bulldogs and did so at the wing position for the first four games. After a seven-minute and scoreless appearance at Georgia Tech, however, that changed as Georgia head coach Joni Taylor had to find other methods of production. The position was suddenly up-for-grabs. Freshman Caitlin Hose assumed the role for a stretch before suffering a strained plantar fascia, then fellow newcomer Donnetta Johnson did so as the revolving door turned seemingly without end.

There was a lack of focus for Caldwell and she addressed it in December prior to the Lady Bulldogs’ loss at Villanova. After a temporary uptick, it dragged on into conference play until her opportunity came and a decision had to be made. Caldwell’s chance actually didn’t come at the “3” spot (even though she rotates at the position frequently), but at the forward spot after Stephanie Paul fell out of her long-time starting role.

Georgia’s rotation was endless as Taylor was trying to fill the void with a player who could halt the team’s inconsistencies that have led to five SEC losses. As the rotations continued, each player noticed the opening for sustained playing time and Caldwell took time alone to ask herself, “Is this what you want?”

“I had to work for it, start putting work in the gym, remember plays. It was a wake-up call,” Caldwell said. “I said ‘let’s go, pick it up and go to work.’”

Georgia guard Maya Caldwell (11) during the Lady Bulldogs’ basketball game against South Carolina at Stegeman Coliseum in Athens, Ga., on Thursday, Feb. 15, 2018. NICOLE ADAMSON Special to the Telegraph

All of the concerns about her own performances were alleviated and a change in attitude began to show in Georgia’s home loss to Alabama. While the Lady Bulldogs suffered a potentially-season-altering loss, it was a memorable performance for Caldwell because she logged 21 minutes and was an influence after only three minutes against Texas A&M a week prior.

Since that 11-point performance (her first double-digit showing of the season) against the Crimson Tide, Caldwell’s spot in the lineup had been revived. It took three months and a change in position (it isn’t easy for a 5-foot-11 guard-by-trade to be thrown into a post position against taller SEC opponents), but the Lady Bulldogs’ sophomore is noticing the results of an extra step of determination.

“I’m staying locked in a lot more, whether that’s in practice, getting in shots on my own or studying the scouting reports,” Caldwell said. “I’m reminding myself to stay focused.”

Georgia reaped those benefits through this stretch as Caldwell has brought consistency. Whether it be the first-quarter surge against Arkansas which resulted in 12 points or scoring on three-of-four possessions against Florida, there’s a useful versatility with a 5-foot-11 frame. Caldwell is playing as a forward, but playing like a guard in many instances by racing around to different spots offensively.

Caldwell’s frontcourt mate Jenna Staiti called those “crazy moves.”

“She’s got the ability to stretch the floor, can post up and brings the energy,” Taylor said. “Maya is coachable and always has a smile on her face. She’s willing to do whatever you ask and is a pleasure to coach.”

The surge is largely in part to Caldwell’s enhanced work ethic and development, but a specific attentiveness by Taylor plays a factor. Georgia’s fourth-year head coach expressively teaches Caldwell as shown on a defensive sequence in the second quarter. Florida got into its offensive set and Taylor pleaded for Caldwell to guard a 3-point shooter by yelling “MAYA, MAYA, MAYA” from the sideline, and knew a late assignment would lead to points. Seconds later, it went through and Taylor was right.

Along with the on-court coaching, Taylor has also engaged in heart-to-heart throughout Caldwell’s turbulent season that has consisted of uneven playing time. Taylor tries to make it a comfortable transition for Caldwell to alternate between the wing and the forward spots, and puts an emphasis on defensive play — an area in which Caldwell has struggled.

“Her expectations are high for me and she cares,” Caldwell said. “The only time anyone should worry is when a coach starts talking to you. It’s feeding me energy, whether it’s the happiest tone or the most-frustrated tone. I use it to fuel me.”

Georgia’s conference slate has six games remaining before heading to Greenville, South Carolina for the SEC tournament. There’s significant work to be done for the nine-loss Lady Bulldogs to return to postseason play, and closure at a once-uncertain position could enhance confidence in a do-or-die stretch of games.

For Caldwell to play a part in the team’s run, performances similar to Sunday’s must be strung together. Whether it happens or not, that’s at the sophomore’s feet.

“We’ve had enough talks for me to know that Joni is depending on me,” Caldwell said. “She has those expectations for me and I need to respond.”