Nov. 27: Why Georgia felt euphoric after beating Notre Dame
Georgia notched one of its biggest wins of the season over Notre Dame.
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — The final buzzer became a celebratory horn once Notre Dame's Dara Mabrey came up short in her final 3-point attempt during the game's waning seconds. A 45-minute war filled with a series of back-and-fourth battles finally came to an end.
The noise echoed through the dingy confines of the Ocean Center. A near-deafening roar from Georgia's bench and the contingent of die-hard supporters who made the seven-hour drive to the Atlantic coast conjoined with the final blare. Georgia players convened in jubilation, with players raising their arms in victory. Newcomers who had yet to see such a moment, like reserve guard Kimmie Jenkins, who didn't play in Friday's game, stomped across the court to yell in approval of her team's performance.
Georgia head coach Joni Taylor soaked it in, too. As the Lady Bulldogs waved to their fans, the seventh-year head coach waved her arms to urge more crowd noise. She could feel it. Georgia had done it.
An on-court party had everything except confetti streaming down from the sky.
"We're relentless," super senior forward Jenna Staiti said. "We didn't want to lose this."
Georgia (5-0) toppled Notre Dame, a program with an illustrious history, 71-67 in the first of two games at the Daytona Beach Invitational. A back-and-forth battle had the makings of an instant classic. No team could run away with a big lead in the tussle of two evenly-matched teams that pride themselves on many of the same basketball principles.
A block at the end of regulation followed by a Staiti stare-down had the makings of March. Georgia's 8-0 run in under two overtime minutes to seal a victory after trailing by a pair of possessions felt like a Cinderella story coming to life.
But wait. It's the end of November. Georgia is three-plus months away from dancing yet again in the NCAA tournament. Nearly 25 games remain on the regular-season schedule. Something about this game, though, made it more special.
"We wanted to come out here and prove something," junior guard Chloe Chapman said after a dazzling performance in the second half to give Georgia a needed lift en route to victory. "We can play with big teams and fight through anything together to come out with a win."
One conclusion became obvious well before Friday's opening tip-off. Taylor and her coaching staff greeted Notre Dame second-year head coach Niele Ivey with open arms and plenty of embraces. Georgia had a ton of respect for a program of the Fighting Irish's caliber. Notre Dame, after all, can make its case to be one of those schools in women's basketball that's a household name.
The Fighting Irish are in the second season under Ivey after her promotion on legendary coach Muffet McGraw's staff. Notre Dame has plenty of championships, honors and a rich legacy to follow throughout the sport's existence. Although Notre Dame finished last season with a significant drop-off from the glory days with a .500 record, that's not indicative of the team that squared off with Georgia — with a lot of good history in its own right — on Friday.
Georgia knew that. It didn't dance around it. Once the four-point win went final, it became more than any other basketball game.
"It's a test we need. We want to be elite and great," Taylor said. "This is a game you need to win. You look back in February and March, and people are going to circle this game. This is a game people will talk about when you look at seeding and bidding for the NCAA tournament."
Friday's game featured everything that could go on highlight reels and be written in record books, although the showdown of well-known programs didn't receive a television assignment aside from a $30 per month subscription service. Georgia faced a significant seven-point deficit after one quarter after Notre Dame made the Lady Bulldogs stagnant with a zone defense, one of Taylor's biggest fears entering the opening tip.
Georgia needed reassurance to calm itself down. A slew of turnovers, missed free throws and missed layups could've hurt the Lady Bulldogs and "the score would've looked different," Taylor admitted, without those miscues. They were especially prevalent in the first quarter. Staiti said Georgia was "giving it to them" with self-inflicted errors, and Taylor had a simple-but-motivating message.
"This isn't us," she said.
Mikayla Coombs, who recorded eight steals for the first time since Shacobia Barbee did so in 2013 and came two swipes away from the all-time school record, took the leadership role inside Georgia's huddle. She gave all of her teammates high-fives and said "Hey, we've got this." A quarter later, entering halftime, a surge gave Georgia a one-point lead in its first true test of the season.
"To play as badly as we did and have a lead," Staiti said. "It gave us confidence."
The second half consisted of trading baskets, but Georgia had some unsung heroes step up to have their first big moment in a Lady Bulldog uniform. Freshman Jillian Hollingshead, whom Taylor kindly compared to a "Candace Parker-like player" did it all while logging 19 minutes while hitting a few key jumpers and remaining steady defensively.
Chapman, who decided to join the basketball team full-time as a former two-sport athlete, finally got what she had been searching for over the last two seasons. She was able to contain Notre Dame guard Olivia Miles, who Chapman said was the "head of the snake" and play a role in forcing nine individual turnovers. Eight of her 10 points came in the second half, too, which certainly became Georgia's benefit.
"We thought our advantage was our bench, and that really showed up," Taylor said. "They all chip in."
A thrilling fourth quarter turned into a defensive lockdown session in the game's waning moments. Miles made a layup with 3:35 remaining in regulation, and nobody else scored until the overtime period. The highlight, though, came from Staiti. Georgia had a defensive plan to switch everything, but some miscommunication left Mabrey — known as one of the nation's premier shooters — open on the perimeter in the final seconds.
Staiti saw that none of her teammates had solid coverage on Mabrey. She had to step out beyond the perimeter, and Staiti's 6-foot-4 frame swatted it away for her sixth block.
"You don't want that going up without any contest," Staiti said. "(If) that's in, it's a lost game. We'd all be sad in the locker room right now."
In overtime, Georgia could've been out of it. Miles, yet again in her career-best 24-point showing, hit a layup to give Notre Dame a four-point lead. The super seniors, Staiti and Que Morrison, turned the tide quickly. The Lady Bulldogs went on an 8-0 run after a nifty pass from Morrison to Sarah Ashlee Barker for a score, a Morrison layup and a game-sealing shot from Staiti.
Once more, Georgia didn't allow a point in the meaningful moments and declared its statement.
"We're never rattled," Taylor said. "This team is steady."
Taylor walked around the Ocean Center court with a smile once her team prevailed. Georgia has yet to have a non-conference win to this magnitude in her tenure as the program's head coach. The Lady Bulldogs pride themselves on scheduling challenging opponents to prepare themselves for SEC play — three of them remain this season in Texas Tech, Georgia Tech and NC State.
She hadn't been able to beat any of them, though, aside from a few wins in the intrastate rivalry with the Yellow Jackets. Georgia came up short to UCLA twice in a home-on-home, couldn't beat Texas or Baylor and fell in two second-round NCAA tournament matchups against respectable programs, Oregon and Duke.
At last, the big non-conference win came. Georgia players had their moment, but Taylor had one of her own.
The celebrations might be short-lived, however, because Georgia prepared for Marquette for a less-than-24-hour turnaround. The Golden Eagles face Georgia on Saturday (approximately 2:15 p.m., FloHoops) after beating Middle Tennessee State in overtime.
A win over Notre Dame brought all of the emotions, but after all, it's only one game with plenty to come.
"It's a big deal, but we need to come back and do it again tomorrow. Our plate is full," Taylor said. "I know they're going to fight. There's no quit in them, and that's going to carry a long way."