Dec. 31: Lady Bulldogs felt Staiti's absence in 'winnable game' against LSU
Without Jenna Staiti, the Lady Bulldogs lost their SEC opener to LSU.
ATHENS, Ga. — The bug didn't squash Georgia's SEC opener against LSU. The festivities went on, but it still bit.
Jenna Staiti, Georgia's leading scorer, rebounder and shot blocker, wasn't available for the Lady Bulldogs on Thursday night after entering health and safety protocols. Her status for Georgia's next game on Sunday at Florida is unknown, but the team practiced without the sixth-year senior after returning from the short Christmas holiday break, head coach Joni Taylor said.
The ranked showdown between conference foes unfolded in similar fashion to some of the previous meetings — a battle to the end that hasn't recently bounced in Georgia's favor. Once more, Tigers' star guard Khayla Pointer proved to be the reason why. She hit a 3-pointer with a minute remaining that served as a dagger and coincided by a two-minute scoring drought by the Lady Bulldogs.
All the while, Georgia didn't have its biggest, most-reliable piece in Staiti.
"She gets a block or comes down to score when you need a bucket on the other end," Taylor said of Staiti's capabilities. "We missed her presence tonight tremendously, and we'll be looking forward to when she can return."
Georgia (11-2, 0-1 SEC) dropped its first of 16 conference matchups to LSU (12-1, 1-0 SEC), 68-62. The teams are slated to meet again in Baton Rouge, La. for a mid-week tilt on Feb. 10.
The Lady Bulldogs gave Malury Bates the starting nod, but took a necessary by-committee approach to replace the talents of Staiti, who has averaged 14.2 points and 7.3 rebounds per game with 10 double-digit scoring performances. Taylor gave heavy minutes to Bates, Jillian Hollingshead and Javyn Nicholson while Jordan Isaacs received a lighter nine-minute load.
LSU jumped on Georgia with an 11-2 lead in the first quarter and built a lead that swelled to as many as 13 at the beginning of the third quarter. The Tigers, who only played six players due to a couple of protocol-related absences, were led by Faustine Afiuwa and Autumn Newby in the post. They combined for 26 points and 19 rebounds while getting plenty of decent looks without Staiti's 6-foot-5 frame in the post.
"We know what a great player she is. She brings size to the floor and blocks a lot of shots," LSU head coach Kim Mulkey said. "Let me quickly tell you that coaches don't make excuses nor do they apologize. This is where we are now, whether it's Covid or injuries, you gotta go play. Her not being on the floor is obviously a big part of their identity."
Nicholson, known for her offensive prowess in a bench role throughout this season, embraced the role of heavier minutes after a conversation with Staiti leading up to Thursday's game. She had eight points and seven rebounds, and found a rhythm defensively when the Lady Bulldogs switched to a 2-3 zone.
Georgia found a way to claw back into contention in the third quarter. LSU didn't expect the Lady Bulldogs to switch into a zone scheme, Mulkey said, because they don't run it much. It allowed for Que Morrison to continue to flourish in what became a career-best 26-point night. Sophomore Sarah Ashlee Barker added 14 points sparked by scoring seven-consecutive points after a slow start.
Over the third-quarter stretch where Georgia cut its deficit from 16 to 5, Nicholson had four points and six rebounds.
"It was one of those things where I had to do it, embrace it and push through getting tired," Nicholson said. "Jenna is a big part of us, and we miss her out there for sure."
"I wasn't hitting (LSU's post players) early, and they were getting low for those easy scores. We made little adjustments and came out with more energy."
Taylor never discredits her team's effort, and said her team "played like hell." Georgia had energy and resilience on display to open SEC play, but an early hole became too much to overcome. An uncharacteristic defensive performance, mainly in the first half, proved too costly.
Pointer's late 3-pointer spoiled the party on Georgia's home floor, but it can only lead to the question of "What if?" as it played a ranked opponent to the wire without one of its star players.
On a night where four league games were cancelled and Covid-19 returns to ravage the sports world, Georgia had the fortune of playing on Thursday night. The bug, however, still had an effect inside Stegeman Coliseum, and kept Staiti sidelined.
"It's not a secret that things would be different without Jenna on the floor," Taylor said. "At the same time, it's why everybody has to be ready to go. I thought this was a winnable game for us. It's not an excuse for us missing assignments or not finishing a play."