Joni Taylor walked back to her office with an order of “The Lineage” (no mushrooms or onions) from YourPie pizza, then was back in front of the media backdrop. Taylor flashed a genuine smile to reporters, eager to speak about her team and Arkansas — the first opponent of tournament play — and felt well enough to pace-and-stomp along the sideline once more.
It’s official: Georgia’s head coach is back for postseason play.
Keep in mind, Taylor’s return comes two weeks after giving birth to her second child and during the time period that Georgia was finding its stride through conference play. Taylor is rejuvenated, eager and confident that the Lady Bulldogs can make a run toward the NCAA Tournament.
“Her swift return is one of many ways that coach Taylor exemplifies her dedication to UGA and our community,” said Darrice Griffin, Georgia’s deputy director of athletics who has been closely-connected with the women’s program. “This is who she is at her core.”
Taylor sat down with The Telegraph to discuss Georgia’s 18-11 season before the Lady Bulldogs travel to Greenville, South Carolina to begin the “third portion” of its season in the SEC Tournament. She expands upon a busy fourth season of her tenure, finding the balancing act that many thought was impossible and the future of the Georgia basketball program.
Note: This Q&A has been edited and condensed for clarity.
With high expectations, 11 losses and your personal circumstances, would this be the most strenuous season you’ve had at Georgia?
I think year two was very similar (birth of Taylor’s oldest child, Jacie). I think the difference in year two is that we knew we would struggle some. This year, from the outside looking in, we were poised to do some really good things. I think we grew up later than most people expected us to. I would compare it to year two because we peaked at the very end, played good basketball at that point and struggled in the non-conference.
Everyone has spoken about the balance you’ve carried through your pregnancy. What is the most important thing with that as you keep your job a priority?
My balance is this: basketball and family is super important, and those I split in-between. I’m fortunate to have a husband who understands it and a family who gives a lot of help. That allows me to come back, be here and do the things that I do.
There’s a lot of things outside of basketball and family that I don’t get to do. That’s because I spend so much time here and the sacrifices you make and that’s the decision I made. In order to put my time into those two things, there doesn’t leave a lot of time for other things. Especially when you’re trying to bring a program back to national prominence.
In terms of how I do it on the daily, there’s great help from my assistant coaches who do a lot. I listen to my body and I have tried to be better about saying no. That’s hard for me because I love to help, talk and speak. I have learned that sometimes I have to — whether that be closing my door for a 30-minute nap or talk with Que (Morrison) because I haven’t seen her in a day or two. It’s whatever that allows me to do, because I can’t stretch myself so thin.
Someone told me this a long time ago, but it rings more true every day: each time you say yes to something, you’re saying no to something else. I try to be better about what I say yes and no to.
Heading into the SEC Tournament, do you guys keep the success of the season in perspective? For example, if Georgia makes a run and doesn’t get into the NCAA Tournament.
We will have an end-of-year evaluation with each one of our players and we look at both the good and bad. Obviously, anything short of making the tournament is a disappointment for us. That’s what Georgia basketball does, is the expectation and what we brought these players here for. That’s something we definitely look at.
It’s not a matter of ‘Oh, we didn’t make it but we made a run. Let’s pat you on the back.’ It’s going to be something we talk about, because that can’t happen here. But we will talk about the good things and how we improve on that. Also, how we eliminate some of those things that put us in the position that we’re in now — on the bubble and fighting for our lives to get in.
As this season comes to a close, who is a player you see as the most-improved? Who might elevate herself into being a viable asset next season?
Donnetta Johnson has to be the one. That’s because of how far behind she was when she got here. I’ll pull out videos from her first workout in June to now and it’s like looking at two different players. She goes so much harder and has a better understanding of things defensively. She’s the most-improved, for sure.
Based on the growth of the roster, where do you see the outlook of this program in year four?
I’m extremely excited about what we’re doing, where we’re headed and the players we have returning. The new players we brought in (Chloe Chapman, Javyn Nicholson and Jordan Isaacs) are the right people and the right fit. Their style of play can enhance what we do and what we bring to the table. We are continuing to hit the road in recruiting in order to bring our program to the next level.
I wanted to touch on recruiting a bit more and the 2019 signing class. Were Javyn and Chloe priorities to say ‘OK, these are the players needed to continue elevating this program?’
All three — I would throw Jordan Isaacs, another Georgia kid, in there as well — were very important and we identified them as ninth graders and recruited them ever since. We went after them really hard and were fortunate for them to come to Georgia. They all do things that can take us to the next level.
Chloe is extremely quick and a great defender. She can handle the ball. Javyn is a post player who can score at all three levels, and is somebody who reminds me of Merritt Hempe in terms of her ability to face-up, shoot from 3 and drive to the basket.
Jordan Isaacs’ motor is something we need. She’s a great rebounder, does the intangibles and will become a better scorer when she gets here. Her ability to chase down balls and rebound gives her a blue-collar work ethic. We’re missing that and need it.
How do you go about filling Caliya Robinson’s position with these signees, someone who you said was irreplaceable?
In terms of Javyn and Jordan, their game isn’t Caliya’s game. They don’t have her athleticism and don’t do some of the things she can do. We don’t have someone who looks like Caliya in this class. We can take little pieces of it: Jordan can rebound like Caliya can, Javyn can score sometimes with her back-to-the-basket like Caliya and (sophomore) Malury Bates can block shots like she can.
It’s by committee. We can replace Caliya’s contribution by committee, and not by one person.