Mike Neighbors has walked through Stegeman Coliseum twice as Arkansas head coach. Each time, he is baffled by what he notices. There are more retired jersey numbers for the women’s basketball program (3: Teresa Edwards, Katrina McClain and Janet Harris) than the men’s team (1: Dominique Wilkins).
That’s a testament to the program’s legacy built under Andy Landers — anything less than success is unacceptable. Perhaps nothing illustrates that better than the 33 NCAA Tournament bids Georgia’s received in the 38 tournaments since Landers began his illustrious coaching career in 1979.
This season’s finish will fall under the negative category. Georgia, finishing with 12-or-more losses for the third time since 2014-15, had its season end Thursday night with a 86-76 loss to Arkansas at Bon Secours Wellness Arena. Fourth-year head coach Joni Taylor will miss the tournament for the second time, and Georgia will not accept a WNIT bid. Georgia has only done so once in its history, and it won the tournament title in 1981.
Georgia is the first nine-win team in SEC history that will not earn an NCAA Tournament bid. The only other team to finish above .500 in conference play and be omitted was Kentucky in 2008, but there were only 14 games in an SEC slate at that time.
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“It’s unfortunate that our season is ending today,” Taylor said at the podium after her first game returning to a full-time coaching role. “We come to Georgia to play in the NCAA tournament. We will not take a bid to the NIT if given one.”
Before turning the corner to get a glimpse at players sitting in their lockers, the disappointment was obvious. Not a sound could be heard, and not a smiling face was to be seen. That may be the per-usual attitude after a defeat, but this carried a bit more weight because it was season-ending. Georgia was hopeful to make a run after catching fire at the end of conference play, but it wasn’t meant to be as a weakness — defense in transition — was exposed by 31 points from Chelsea Dungee.
For Georgia, it wasn’t the loss that hurt. Its pain came from such a tumultuous season ending in the way it did: without hope to continue on. That’s a stark contrast from a year ago as the Lady Bulldogs were revving up to be a No. 4 seed and host of the NCAA Tournament.
“It’s not what we want, because we have high expectations for ourselves,” sophomore point guard Gabby Connally said. “We didn’t meet them, but I don’t regret anything we’ve been through.”
Georgia opened its season four months ago (which may seem like much longer to many who experienced agonizing defeats) with a tough schedule. It included trips to UCLA, Villanova and a date with formidable Maryland in the Puerto Rico Invitational. At the time, those were tests to prepare a young roster for a NCAA Tournament run in consecutive seasons. Not if, but when. Taylor saw it as an opportunity to boost the RPI and add solid non-conference victories to its resume. Georgia was a threat on the road in the season prior, so it was logical.
Georgia wrote all of its non-conference opponents on a large easel board and the players projected each game. There were two columns: the expected and actual result. On the far side of the board, there were scouting notes for each opponent. Last season, Taylor challenged her team to do this during SEC play and the Lady Bulldogs surpassed their own beliefs.
This season’s board had Maryland as its lone loss, and it stood across from the Stegeman Coliseum locker room for a majority of the non-conference schedule. Georgia’s early season was more unstable than expected. There was a collapse at UCLA after holding a 13-point lead, an out-of-sorts performance that resulted in a stinging loss to rival Georgia Tech (and a postgame re-evaluation meeting that took an hour in the team locker room) and a loss at Villanova after holding an early lead.
In the loss Georgia expected, the result might’ve been a bit better. Maryland is one of the nation’s top-ranked teams and a Big Ten champion. Georgia faced odd circumstances in a silent arena with less than 75 attendees and it was a game very few focused on, but the Lady Bulldogs nearly pulled off a win.
“We fought in that game, and we showed everybody what we were capable of,” Connally said. “Every game we lost, exception being Missouri, it has been the same story. It’s not like we just got blown out. That shows our fight.”
Analyzing the season
A series of losses continued into SEC play as there were losing streaks, another team meeting and bouts of frustrations in practice. But Georgia’s in-game “fight,” a term used frequently Thursday night to describe the season, was shown frequently. There were no blowouts (other than the 30-point drubbing in Columbia, Missouri), and that was something Taylor had hoped for entering the season.
That was a microcosm of the season. Jenna Staiti said Georgia has to look at both the good and bad moments, so let’s start with the positives.
▪ Georgia rallied from a 17-point deficit to beat Tennessee at home. Tennessee, a program with a formidable history, is an opportunity that the Lady Bulldogs relish at each season. The Lady Volunteers were ranked 13th nationally entering that game.
“That’s something you’ll never forget,” Staiti said.
▪ Speaking of Staiti, she revealed glimpses of potential in her first season with the program. In her return home as a transfer from Maryland, she served as a 6-foot-6 presence and towered over most defenders. She had career highs of 21 points and 10 rebounds on separate occasions.
▪ Taja Cole led the SEC in assists with 202 through 29 games. She fell two short of holding the second-highest mark in school history, behind 204 from Adrienne Shuler in the 1990-91 season.
▪ Caliya Robinson finished her Lady Bulldog career as an All-SEC First-Team and All-Defensive team selection. She had 19 points and 10 rebounds in her final game, and will likely be a WNBA draft pick. Neighbors spoke for other coaches in the SEC as he’s looking forward to her departure, in the kindest manner: “I’m going to send Caliya Robinson a graduation card, make sure her alarm is set, shows up on time to walk and gets out of there. She is phenomenal.”
▪ Georgia nearly knocked off each of the top-four teams in the SEC. Those losses to Mississippi State, South Carolina, Texas A&M and Kentucky were by a combined 32 points.
“I had a fun season,” Cole said. “We fought a lot of adversity with a young, young team. We just have to learn how to finish. We can compete with anybody.”
Said Connally: “I cherish these memories with my teammates, and hopefully we can carry that growth into the next season.”
The bad of Georgia’s season is quite direct, and it’s an agonizing type of pain to those who hoped to carry on program legacy. There were many oh-so-close moments for the Lady Bulldogs to make their statement and emerge as an NCAA Tournament contender. There’s depth on the roster, and there’s also a lot of talent.
But there was youth, immaturity and a need to grow. Georgia found its stride too late, and it ended up not being enough with an early exit. Taylor will evaluate the season with each player in two weeks.
“We’re not satisfied with where we are now,” Taylor said. “It’s unacceptable for us to end our season today the way we did. But I’m proud of the team we have.”
“If we do what we’re supposed to do, then we should make it back into the NCAA Tournament and see how far we get. That’s up to us, really, and the coaches can tell us all they want. It’s up to us to do it and receive what they’re saying. We need to look ourselves in the mirror.”
After the frustration subsides, Georgia will see its glimmer of hope on the recruiting trail. Taylor signed a 2019 class that includes two five-star prospects: Javyn Nicholson from Collins Hill and Chloe Chapman, a two-sport athlete from Mitchellville, Maryland. That duo is complemented with three-star forward Jordan Isaacs and Virginia Tech transfer Shaniya Jones (Note: Jones has been on-campus since January as a practice participant. She is eligible in January 2020). Taylor detailed their additions as she sat down with The Telegraph for a question-and-answer session.
Taylor stresses the “fit” in recruiting and intertwines it with a desire to win championships. This newest group of freshmen have a clear idea as to what those goals are. Georgia’s last class with five-star signees (2017) resulted in a nationally-ranked finish.
“I’m bringing leadership and a drive to win,” Chapman told The Telegraph. “Hopefully I can bring that extra push that will manifest in my future teammates. … (Joni’s) clearly shown how much the tournament means to her. You can see it in her tone of voice. She wants to win a championship.”
While Georgia fell short of its ultimate goal, one doesn’t have to look far to see what the program has accomplished in the Stegeman Coliseum rafters. Taylor will enter her fifth year at the helm and the Lady Bulldogs’ desire will be to rise toward prominence once again.
A return toward that legacy, however, begins in the same place where crushing defeat was felt.
“If we do what we’re supposed to do, then we should make it back into the NCAA Tournament and see how far we get,” Connally said. “That’s up to us, really, and the coaches can tell us all they want. It’s up to us to do it and receive what they’re saying. We need to look ourselves in the mirror.”