Dec. 18: The motivation behind Jenna Staiti's stellar day at NC State
Georgia's veteran post presence played a crucial role in a statement win inside the Wolfpack's home arena.
RALEIGH, N.C. — Six seconds remained in overtime, and everybody packed inside Reynolds Arena knew who would take NC State's last gasp shot. The Wolfpack found Elissa Cunane in the post, and the ACC's star post player had 18 second-half points with the chance to give her team the win.
Step for step, Jenna Staiti stayed with Cunane. She didn't foul. She forced a miss and hauled in the rebound to ice Georgia's 82-80 overtime victory at No. 2 NC State.
"My main thing was to get a stop. She's a great player, so they're obviously going to want the ball in her hands," Staiti said. "I had to do my job, keep my arms straight up and don't foul her."
She posted 21 points, 11 rebounds and six blocks against the Wolfpack and became one of the biggest pieces in the Lady Bulldogs' first road win over a top-two since 2004.
Staiti took advantage in the first half when Cunane found herself in first-half foul trouble. She picked up two fouls in less than five minutes and a reach-in infraction on Que Morrison after a steal caused Cunane to sit. NC State turned to Camille Hobby for the rest of the first half, and Staiti led Georgia to a 12-point lead at the intermission. Twelve of her 21 points came in the first 20 minutes of play.
Cunane returned in the third quarter, and willed NC State back into contention. Staiti knew it would pose a challenge, and Georgia also gave some minutes to Malury Bates, Javyn Nicholson and Jillian Hollingshead to take on that responsibility. Staiti found a way, though, to buckle down in the fourth quarter and overtime. Two of her blocks came in those periods, along with the shot contest that forced the Cunane miss.
"It was definitely tough," Cunane said of the matchup with Staiti. "They were focused on her inside and she's a good player. We were trying to help, but they were hitting shots from everywhere."
Staiti, at 6-foot-5, faces plenty of players like Cunane each season. She looks at a season schedule and awaits matchups with South Carolina's Aliyah Boston, Georgia Tech's Lorela Cubaj, Mississippi State's Jessika Carter, Mississippi's Shakira Austin, Tennessee's Tamari Key and others. The post position is a money spot across women's college basketball, so there are plenty of challenges thrown Staiti's way on a nightly basis.
Most, if not all, of those listed players are pegged above Staiti. They all receive national recognition.
The chatter centered around the Wolfpack's post presence before and during Thursday's showdown between two top-20 teams. Not much attention went to Staiti. Maybe it's due to being a sixth-year player. It could be because of transferring from Maryland and needing more than a season to find her footing at Georgia and earn significant playing time.
By the end of this night, though, Staiti had the last laugh.
"Cunane is a very good player, but so is Jenna Staiti," Georgia head coach Joni Taylor said. "That's a 1-on-1 matchup I'm going to take Jenna every time. I'm picking Jenna Staiti every single time. I'll be quite honest. It pisses her off when they talk about her opponent and don't really mention her."
Staiti's performance marked her fourth double-double through 10 games. Eleven rebounds was only one behind a season-high (12) set against Mercer on Nov. 18. Six blocks tied a season-high, which was also set in the overtime victory over Notre Dame on Nov. 26.
Taylor didn't have any worries about how Staiti would perform against a premier post presence on a top-ranked team. Frankly, Georgia sees itself in a similar light and believes it can make a run into late March or April. Staiti will be a big reason why Georgia could do that, because the sixth-year senior has been that integral piece for the Lady Bulldogs for two-plus seasons.
Staiti left her home state out of high school as a Gatorade Player of the Year and a five-star prospect. She played at Maryland for a season under Brenda Frese, but didn't receive much opportunity. In the previous era where players had to sit out a season as an undergraduate transfer, Staiti had to spectate through the Lady Bulldogs' first NCAA tournament run in the 2017-18 season. Staiti's development occurred in the consecutive seasons where Georgia found itself as a middle-of-the-pack SEC team and out of the postseason picture.
Last season, when Georgia returned to national prominence, Staiti became the consistent post piece that Taylor leaned on. She referred to Staiti as, "Steady Eddie," because the Lady Bulldogs could always depend on the 6-foot-5 post to record a double-double (or something similar) and be a significant piece of Georgia's victories.
Through it all, though, Staiti has flown under the radar and hasn't received too much recognition outside of SEC circles. A preseason list of the sport's top players by ESPN's Charlie Creme featured ten players at 6-foot-3 or taller. Many of them have opposed Staiti before — Austin, Cubaj and Boston to name a few. Staiti wasn't on the list.
"I think I should be in the conversation. It pisses me off sometimes that I'm not," Staiti said. "I don't focus on the outside, but come in and do what I'm supposed to do. Let them talk. Let them say who's the best. I'm gonna come out and do my job."
Staiti is the biggest critic of her own game. Her mother, Sandi Staiti, has said repetitively over the years that her daughter has a bad poker face. You can always see the emotions. Staiti expects the best of her own game, regardless of opponent or margin of victory. An eight-point, five-rebound performance in a 30-point win over Alabama State can leave Staiti a bit frustrated and wishing for more.
In Georgia's 55-54 home loss to Georgia Tech on Dec. 5, Staiti had seven points and six rebounds at a 3-for-13 shooting clip. She had been shut down by Tech's duo of Cubaj and Nerea Hermosa. Staiti, rather bluntly, said her performance "was awful" against the Yellow Jackets. It fueled her for the next test against an oft-discussed post presence in Cunane.
This time, she passed. All of the discussion centered around Staiti's opponent, yet again, but she chimed in when it mattered most. Georgia doesn't win without Staiti's efforts.
"Jenna is one of those players when the lights are on, she's the one who steps up," sophomore guard Sarah Ashlee Barker said. "She played amazing against Cunane, but that's who Jenna is. She's a big-time player and an in-the-moment person.
"Everything that is coming for her, she deserves it."