Georgia senior Gabby Connally (2) and senior Jenna Staiti (14) share a moment before Staiti shoots a freethrow. The University of Georgia women’s basketball team beat Oklahoma 93-80 on Dec. 6, 2020, in Athens, Georgia. (Photo/ Kathryn Skeean, kskeean@randb.com)

‘Defense Travels’ has been a long-standing mantra for the Georgia women’s basketball team.

So much so that before any athlete commits to Georgia, head coach Joni Taylor lets it be known that the women will not see the floor if they are not going to defend.

“We give this message in the recruiting process,” Taylor said. “If you're not interested in playing defense, you don't need to come here. So I think they understand when they walk through those doors that's how we're going to set the tone for what we do.”

Mikayla Coombs, a redshirt junior guard that transferred from UConn in 2019, describes how eye-opening it was when she learned the amount of time and value the program puts on defensive strategizing.

“It was actually crazy to me when I first got here just how much expectations are on defense,” Coombs said. “Coming here [to the SEC], you win games based off of scouting reports, so seeing how much time we spend breaking down every team's plays and figuring out the different aspects of each play and how we're going to defend them was a huge adjustment for me.”

The Bulldogs are ranked fourth in total blocked shots and sixth in average blocked shots per game, trailing in second place amongst SEC competitors to rival South Carolina. 

This is due in part by the trust and communication amongst senior starters Gabby Connally, Que Morrison and Maya Caldwell. However, it is no eyebrow-raiser that redshirt senior, 6-foot-4 center, Jenna Staiti — most recently named an All-SEC second team selection — is a leader for the Bulldogs on the defensive side of the ball.

Staiti is fourth in the country in total blocked shots this season with 72 and leads the SEC with 3.1 blocked shots per game.

“She had a fire under her at the end of last season,” Taylor said. “The light bulb turned on for her in terms of who she could be in this league and the presence she could have and she's owned that and is showing up every day to get better.”

Although Staiti is averaging 23.4 minutes this season, the same average for last season, she is averaging more points, rebounds and blocks per game this year.

“If you look at all of our players they are playing less minutes than last year and their stats are better because they're not having to carry the load the way they did last year,” Taylor said. “They're not getting worn down so they can be more efficient in less amount of time.”

Starting guard Connally expressed the value of Staiti as being very crucial to the success of Georgia’s defense given the fact that her presence in the paint alone deters opponents from the rim.

“People don't want to drive in there to begin with if they see that she's standing there,” Connally said. 

Because if she’s not sending the ball into the stands, she’s getting a defensive rebound for the Bulldogs. Staiti is averaging 5.5 defensive rebounds per game this season compared to last season's 4.2 average.

At first, when asked what word best described Staiti’s merit on the team Coombs replied, “invaluable.” After she began to explain her reasoning, she quickly and decisively changed her mind.

“Honestly, I'm gonna change it to reliable because Jenna is always there,” Coombs said.

Morrison, a part of Georgia's defense, added SEC Co-Defensive Player of the Year to her achievements this week. 

Morrison is the second Bulldog to earn the Defensive Player of the Year award after Sherill Baker received the honor in 2006. 

“I think it is really special that she is the first Georgia player to have this honor since Sherill Baker, they’re extremely close,” Taylor said. “We had comparisons of the two of them so it’s really nice to see that we weren’t far off the mark in the recruiting process.”

Before becoming a Bulldog, Taylor describes how Morrison prided herself in being a defensive player, even back in high school. It was something the Georgia coaching staff knew that she was very capable of doing.

Morrison came into the program with a promising career ahead of her with the Bulldogs. In her first year, she was placed on the 2018 SEC All-Freshman Team. 

As a freshman, Que was our second best defender, Haley Clarke being the first and she studied Haley Clarke with a passion and learned a lot from her,” Taylor said. “And then from the moment [Clarke] left, Que was our primary defender and she took the responsibility of guarding the other teams best guard.”

For Morrison’s sophomore and junior years she went through a period of highs and lows. 

During her sophomore year she faced injury and underwent surgery to repair a torn lateral meniscus in her left knee and missed the first eight games of the season. 

In her junior year she was placed on the 2020 SEC All-Defensive Team. Although, midway through SEC play she suffered a season-ending injury against Texas A&M and had surgery to repair a torn labrum in her right shoulder.

“It was really tough, I honestly didn’t think I was going to be back how I am today 100% and it took me each injury to grow,” Morrison said. “It’s like a mind game.”

Now in her senior season, Morrison is a defensive stopper for Georgia who routinely guards the opposing team’s best players.

Morrison led all SEC players with 33 steals in conference play and finished in the top-15 of the league in steals, assists, assist-to-turnover ratio and free-throw percentage.

“What you’re seeing now is a healthy Que Morrison, but we definitely knew that this was something that she was capable of,” Taylor said.

Heading into SEC Tournament play with a double-bye, Taylor emphasizes the importance of starting off strong defensively the moment the ball tips off.  

“Anytime you play a team in this league it’s tough, it’s challenging, it’s going to be physically draining,” Taylor said. “Sometimes it takes a while for that first shot to go through the hole and while that’s happening you’ve got to be really anchored down defensively.”

The Bulldogs’ first game of the SEC Tournament is against Kentucky at 1:30 p.m. at the Bon Secours Wellness Arena.