Georgia doesn’t talk about the rankings.
The Lady Bulldogs are No. 21 in the latest AP poll and could continue to climb after a 62-50 win over 11th-ranked Missouri Thursday night. The accolades are starting to pile up as Georgia carries an 18-2 record with a six-game conference win streak – its best since 2011. The Lady Bulldogs are in position to host the opening weekend of the NCAA Tournament as ESPN has Georgia as a projected No. 4 seed in the latest bracket release.
But none of that matters to third-year head coach Joni Taylor as she has one goal: Get this team back to where Andy Landers had it.
As Georgia's legendary former women's basketball coach, Landers led the Lady Bulldogs to 31 NCAA Tournaments, 11 Elite Eight appearances and five Final Fours in his 36-year tenure in Athens. Since he retired, Taylor has faced a bit of an uphill climb at times as the program endured a brief rebuilding period.
Taylor now knows her team is back to carrying that potential and asks one question to her players each week. It’s not about the rankings or where the Lady Bulldogs currently stand, but instead this: “What type of legacy do you want to leave?”
“We’re not shocked at our record,” Taylor said. “I think other people are. We’re not. We don’t get caught up on what’s happening now because this is what we thought we were capable of. Our goal is to put Georgia back to national prominence, and make Coach Landers and former players proud.”
Landers, who has since become an analyst for the SEC Network, now sees Georgia compete from a different perspective. The Lady Bulldogs (18-2, 6-1 SEC) are second in the conference behind Mississippi State and have tests against Tennessee and South Carolina looming.
Seeing the action from afar, the former Georgia head coach sees a legacy on its way to being continued.
“Coach Taylor has done an exceptional job,” Landers said to The Telegraph in a text message after the win over Missouri. “Every area of the program is in great shape. This year’s team has the ability to earn a high seed in the upcoming tournament. With continued success in recruiting coupled with Joni’s ability to coach and manage, it appears they can have sustainable success for years to come.”
A season ago, the Lady Bulldogs finished 16-15 and didn’t see any postseason action aside from two games in the SEC Tournament. That campaign involved a significant amount of roster turnover with the loss of key players like Shacobia Barbee along with multiple injuries.
With most of its roster returning and a star-studded recruiting haul – the ninth-best class nationally, according to the ESPN HoopGurlz rankings – Georgia knew it had the potential for a more successful season to follow. The players noticed it in the preseason as the buy-in was present across the roster, ranging from five newcomers – four contributing freshmen and Louisville transfer Taja Cole – to the senior leadership from Mackenzie Engram and Haley Clark.
It was best seen when the Lady Bulldogs were forced to do “the hard stuff.” Whether it be the strenuous weightlifting regimen or the undesired runs at practice, Georgia decided to push through with the mentality of bettering the team.
“I’m really not surprised (at our success), because we put the work in for it,” Cole said. “My first game here (against Wofford), I said that I want to get this team to a Final Four. I’ll do whatever my team needs from me to get that far. I believe we have the talent and the sky’s the limit. I know that.”
It showed early on for Georgia as it knocked off a projected tournament team in Virginia early on. A few weeks later, the Lady Bulldogs were tasked with facing No. 2 Texas and it didn’t go in their favor with a 28-point loss. But they were confident as Clark said Georgia “hung with them” despite the lopsided margin.
The only other loss came against Mississippi State, which holds an undefeated record, and the Lady Bulldogs have used those experiences as lessons. Cole, in fact, still goes back and watches the film in hopes of seeing either of those teams again later in the season.
To counter the losses, Georgia collected its second win of the season against a ranked team and its eighth over programs that reached the postseason in 2017. The talent on the roster is evident as freshmen Que Morrison (8.1 points per game) and Gabby Connally (37 points against Texas A&M) have had highlights as key contributors in the rotation.
But that’s not enough for Taylor. It goes a step further as she needed her newest group of Lady Bulldogs to gel, and that started to take place before any of the newcomers took the court.
“They had to have the right chemistry and buy-in to what we asked to do,” Taylor said. “That starts in the recruiting process, and we pride ourselves on recruiting ladies who fit. If you don’t fit, you don’t come to Georgia. These ladies are the right fit, and because of that, the chemistry is off the charts. That’s why we’re successful.”
As seniors, Clark and Engram are two players that desire continued success as much as any of their teammates. They look to cap their careers with a deep run in the NCAA Tournament. The only other postseason berth Clark and Engram experienced came in 2016, when Georgia lost to Indiana in the first round.
With potentially its best finish since 2013 ahead, the strides have shown one thing: The Lady Bulldogs are back.
“You know what it’s like to be down, so you work not to have that feeling,” Clark said. “Everyone has that want to be great this year. I see that this team is special.”