Nov. 23: Lady Bulldogs await first major test at Daytona Beach Invitational after strong start
Georgia went to Daytona Beach for an early-season showcase around the Thanksgiving holiday.
ATHENS, Ga. — Alabama State's Daklyah Sanders searched the baseline as a swarm of white Georgia jerseys denied every option. She briefly evaluated her options and tried to heave it to a teammate. The pass ended up directly in the hands of Jenna Staiti, who towered over any opposing player.
The fifth-year senior could've taken a few dribbles, found one of Georgia's floor generals and generated an offensive set. After all, these are the transition-happy Lady Bulldogs, so Staiti had a simple choice to make and she didn't even have to look.
She forced the turnover and lobbed the basketball near the mid-court stripe. None of her teammates were immediately in the vicinity. Staiti's no-look pass rolled for a moment, but it didn't matter as sprinting sophomore Sarah Ashlee Barker easily corralled it for an easy, seemingly-effortless layup.
"We always know where each other is," Staiti said. "I threw that ball backwards and I knew someone on my team would go get it."
A few moments later, out of a timeout, Georgia created a bit of déjà vu. Staiti blocked a jumper by Ayana Emmanuel, and found Barker yet again for an easy layup. The unranked yet soon-tested Lady Bulldogs (4-0) had their way over Alabama State in a 73-43 rout which capped a four-game sweep of mid-major foes inside Stegeman Coliseum.
You name it, and Georgia could do it against the Hornets. The Lady Bulldogs forced 25 turnovers and scored 30 points off of miscues, played its entire roster (minus Maori Davenport, who isn't currently with the team, per a spokesperson) while racking up 43 bench points, recording 18 steals and having numerous offensive spurts. It mimics what Georgia had been able to do over its previous three games to start a 2021-22 campaign with expectations of making more noise in March, too.
Georgia faced two brief moments of adversity in the season's first two weeks. Furman ran in transition early and exposed some of the Lady Bulldogs' defensive weaknesses. Mercer took advantage of Georgia missing shots early and jumped out to a nine-point lead to make Taylor's group sweat and craft a plan to climb out of a small hole. In each of those contests, however, Georgia took commanding leads and won by double figures. Consequently, the Lady Bulldogs returned to doing whatever they wanted on their home floor.
The defensive metrics look exceptional for Georgia, too, as the program ranks among the nation's best through the non-conference tuneup:
After a brief mid-week hiatus likely involving a few Thanksgiving festivities, Georgia resumes its non-conference schedule with much-steeper challenges coming its way. The Lady Bulldogs travel to Daytona Beach, Fla. for a two-game holiday showcase against undefeated Notre Dame (Friday, 4:30 p.m.) and one-loss Marquette (Saturday, 2:15 p.m.).
*The two games in Daytona Beach are not televised, but can be streamed on FloHoops.com. The Peach Post will be on-site and providing coverage throughout the showcase for paid subscribers only.
Georgia returns to the event hosted at the Ocean Center on the shores of the Atlantic after splitting two games in the showcase in 2019 (against Virginia Tech and Maryland). In these two games, followed by early-December trips to Texas Tech and No. 5 NC State, the Lady Bulldogs won't likely blow away their opponents like they have through most of November.
Georgia has the chance to make its first statement of the season. Taylor knows it won't be easy, but the program designs non-conference schedules in similar fashion each season to prepare for the daunting stretches that SEC play presents.
"Notre Dame and Marquette are going to test us in a different way," Taylor said. "It's going to tell us where we are as a team."
Through the season's first stretch, Georgia has learned a fair amount about what it brings to the table. Taylor favors depth and using a plethora of talented players without much of a drop-off. That has been the Lady Bulldogs' recruiting philosophy, and it has come to life with five players averaging eight-or-more points.
Georgia also returned most of its roster, minus Gabby Connally and Maya Caldwell, so the experience plays in its favor. The team's biggest challenge is helping mold the group of four freshmen — Kimmie Jenkins, Reigan Richardson, Alina Sendar and Jillian Hollingshead — to where they can play meaningful minutes and help Georgia notch its share of victories. Mainly, Georgia knows how it can play against any program in the country, but a major test hasn't come since March and a roster with a slightly-new look has yet to see a power opponent.
"It tests us, because we've only played home games and this is our big couple of games we've got coming up," Staiti said of the upcoming slate. "I'm excited to see how everyone does on the road. It prepares us for what we have coming in December and for SEC play."
There are a few questions that could answer themselves when the Fighting Irish meet Georgia on the hardwood. The Lady Bulldogs, without Connally, don't have a lead guard but have instead played a three-headed rotation at the ball-handler position with Barker, Mikayla Coombs and Que Morrison. It remains to be seen whether the Lady Bulldogs can continue to find prosperity with that plan amongst the sport's better teams, or if one leader can emerge in that role.
Similarly, Georgia needs to continue to show offensive consistency against teams that are closer to its level. According to Her Hoop Stats, Georgia ranks 33rd in points per game at 78.8 (although a tad skewed by a 97-point performance in the season-opening win over Gardner-Webb), but 63rd in field goal percentage at 44.1% and 290th in 3-point percentage at 23.3%. The Lady Bulldogs will need a 3-point threat as their season continues, and it remains to be seen whether nearly six quarters without a conversion beyond the perimeter is a blip or a trend.
"There are going to be times where we get hit in the face. We're going to have to hit back. We play really well together as a team and we're really jelled," junior forward Javyn Nicholson said. "That great leadership is going to help us through any down moment. The tournament is going to be a great test, and I'm excited to see how we push through it."
Notre Dame (5-0, 1-0 ACC) enters its showdown with Georgia in a similar place with four wins over mid-major opponents with a conference win at Syracuse being the only difference. The Fighting Irish are in the second season under coach Niele Ivey, who is tasked with keeping the program's legacy-filled foundation built under Muffet McGraw intact.
Notre Dame had an up-and-down season through the 2020-21 campaign with a 10-10 record and falling short of the NCAA tournament. Although, the Fighting Irish welcomed Stanford transfer and Georgia product Maya Dodson along with star guard Dara Mabrey and a strong supporting cast.
Georgia has shown plenty of success so far, but now the stakes get higher and the competition strengthens. The Lady Bulldogs will continue to rely on their core values, and the expectation remains to continue its surge toward another March run.
It won't be as easy as blindly rolling passes to teammates anymore, but Georgia features numerous strengths and can make a statement in Daytona Beach and beyond.
"I'm looking forward to (this) week," Taylor said.