Interim head coach Karen Lange shares impact of Joni Taylor showing up for team Thursday night
Karen Lange’s phone lit up at 5 p.m. with a text message. There were two hours until tip-off and Joni Taylor wanted to chime in. As many might’ve expected, she wasn’t sending her team luck as she lie in bed 48 hours after giving birth.
Taylor was ready to be back in Stegeman Coliseum. There was no intention of yanking the interim title from Lange and returning to her duties as Georgia’s full-time head coach, but Taylor craved to be there and display a never-wavering dedication.
“Don’t tell the girls,” Taylor wrote. “I’ll try to be there right before the anthem.”
Lange stuck to her usual routine that she has as an assistant coach, and certainly wasn’t going to divulge the news to the Lady Bulldogs as they readied to play Arkansas. She didn’t sit in Taylor’s locker-room seat, nor did she stand in the head coach’s locker room vicinity. Everything was the same for Lange, except finding the appropriate words to say in a pre-game speech and encouraging video to complement it. That took about a day-and-a-half.
Georgia took the floor in a single-file line for the National Anthem, and that’s when Stephanie Paul looked over to see Taylor standing between Lange and sophomore guard Que Morrison. Her teammates couldn’t believe what they saw and had to do a double-take.
“No, she’s not here,” Caldwell said in response to Paul. Freshmen Donnetta Johnson and Kaila Hubbard also thought it was a joke.
After shaking hands and walking to the bench, Taylor joined them. It actually happened. Their head coach was back and the Lady Bulldogs were both shocked and amazed to see their 39-year-old leader on the bench.
Taylor was released from a local hospital Wednesday afternoon, and was back with her basketball family shortly thereafter. She gave birth to her second daughter, Drew Simone Taylor, on Tuesday morning — 12 hours after coaching the Lady Bulldogs in a Monday night win. Her return fueled Georgia (16-10, 7-6 SEC) to a 93-83 win over Arkansas.
“We heard she was trying to come, but we didn’t actually think she would,” senior forward Caliya Robinson said, who had 21 points and 11 rebounds in the win. “I swear she’s the strongest woman I know.”
Taylor was quiet and reserved throughout the opening stages of the game. She would lean forward into the huddle as she listened to Lange give the team instruction and clapped to give some encouragement. Otherwise, Taylor didn’t want to take control from who she entrusted with the interim tag and wasn’t very vocal. She was too quiet for Lange’s liking, however.
“I’m going to need you to speak,” Lange recalled saying to Taylor after a timeout. “You’re making me more nervous by not saying anything.”
Taylor would eventually become more active as the game progressed, but there were signs of fatigue that were expected. Many across social media were in disbelief as news broke that Taylor had returned to the basketball court in short order. She had been called “hero” and “superwoman” since entering labor only hours after coaching, and those monikers were only proven and reiterated.
“All your excuses are gone,” former Georgia head coach Andy Landers said postgame on the SEC Network.
She was there when her players needed, too. Robinson said she was the “hype man,” because the Lady Bulldogs’ senior would point to her coach after executing a pass to a teammate or converting on one of her eight shot makes. Taylor’s display of resolve gave Georgia little excuse not to escalate its play.
“It’s like having mom there,” said Lange, who improved to 7-2 as an interim coach. “We’re super comfortable with (assistant coaches) Aunt Chelsea (Newton), Aunt Karen and Uncle Rob (Mosley). They’re safe and know they’ll be taken care of. But mom (Taylor) shows up and they can rest easy.”
By the end of the fourth quarter, Georgia found itself in a closely-contested affair with Arkansas. There was an abundance of scoring, and the Lady Bulldogs had to tightly grasp onto the lead if they planned to stay in postseason contention. And with that, Taylor perked up once more and got into her coaching zone.
Caldwell lowered to one knee and met Taylor at her seat on the far-left side of Georgia’s bench. Taylor gave specific instruction to the sophomore and used gestures to relay her message as per-usual, but the only difference was being in a seated position. A moment later, Taylor stood up alongside Lange and didn’t let the circumstances deter from being assertive.
“It lets us know how committed she is to us and it makes us want to drive harder for her,” Caldwell said. “Forty-eight hours later and on the bench is something I couldn’t imagine.”
Taylor’s act of defying what many deemed to be impossible also served as a recruiting tool for the team. She preaches life-based principles to her players and prospects, and the fourth-year head coach put some of those on display Thursday night.
As they say, recruiting never sleeps. Georgia might’ve gained approval from many.
“That made me respect and love her even more,” said Georgia signee Javyn Nicholson, a five-star forward prospect out of Collins Hill. “Her commitment to UGA is through the roof, and she’s a role model to me and many other women.”
“I was surprised, but then I wasn’t,” Chloe Chapman said, a five-star guard signee out of Maryland who intends to play both women’s basketball and soccer at Georgia. “Her decision was eye-opening, and that’s someone I’m ready to play for.”
As the final buzzer sounded, Taylor walked directly toward the Stegeman Coliseum exits with two-year-old daughter Jacie Taylor perched upon her hip. She didn’t want to be the postgame focus, but her return gave the Lady Bulldogs another wave of confidence.
Now, Georgia moves on to its third game in a week as it travels to Alabama on Sunday. Lange is preparing to lead game-plan efforts and continue on in her interim role. As Georgia tries to avenge a home loss to the Crimson Tide, Taylor’s status is uncertain and her staff doesn’t foresee her being all-too-active aside from a possible brief appearance at practice.
If Lange’s phone glows with a text message by Sunday, she won’t be shocked.
“If there’s any way possible, knowing her, she will drive and be there,” Lange said.