Georgia guard Gabby Connally (2) dribbles the ball. The Georgia women’s basketball team lost to the Vanderbilt Commodores on Jan. 9, 2020 in Stegeman Coliseum in Athens, Georgia. The final score was 63-55. (Photo/Julian Alexander, jalexander@randb.com)

Oct. 15 marked the first official regular season practice for Georgia women’s basketball and head coach Joni Taylor welcomed her team back with a playlist of her own in honor of an unexpected twist to the offseason.

“They're going to be forced to listen to what I want to hear instead of their music,” Taylor said in a virtual press conference. “It’s the first day of practice so it gives us old heads some excitement.”

Four starters and 10 players off last season’s squad return as well as 90% of the Bulldogs’ scoring and rebounding. Only losing Stephanie Paul, Ali Henderson, Kaila Hubbard and Shania Johnson, Georgia will utilize the strength of its seniors with the help of three eligible freshmen.

After an abrupt conclusion to the season last March, the Bulldogs were forced to set their own workout routine while quarantining. Some had access to trainers while others practiced in local courts and enjoyed the relaxed schedule. Regardless, Taylor made sure to check in on their routines and mental health.

“We had a group chat where I would send quotes, videos, facts on COVID-19, and they told me what times they would wake up.” Taylor said. “It was a way for the team to see another side of me.”

When the Bulldogs were able to return to campus as early as June 22, Taylor said they were healthy and motivated despite the long time away. When they returned during the summer, the players were not able to practice together until the first day of classes on Aug. 20, and even then there were still restrictions with how many could be together at once. So when they practiced for the first official time on Oct. 15, the Bulldogs focused on merely defense for the first time since March.

“We have tried to be as safe as possible in terms of contact, so we just now started putting defense on each other,” Taylor said. “We will play with an eight- and 15-second shot clock to get into the mode of going quickly up and down the floor.”

Areas of improvement

A loss against South Carolina in the quarterfinals of the SEC tournament highlighted the end to Georgia’s 17-14 (7-9 SEC) season. The Bulldogs were only able to defeat one ranked team out of the 10 they faced, which is something Taylor is looking to avoid this year.

“We have got to start games better and end games better,” Taylor said. “Consistency is what we have talked about as being one of the goals this year.”

Since Georgia suffered offensively last year, Taylor has worked on structuring transitions to eliminate confusion in the paint. Being faster offensively is the key focus for the Bulldogs to be able to play competitively and balance motivation throughout a full game against a ranked opponent.

Senior point guard Gabby Conally will focus on eliminating turnovers as well as being faster on the paint to put points on the board.

“I turn the ball over way too much but I have been putting in extra workouts with Karen [Lange] and others from the staff,” Conally said in a virtual press conference.

Alongside maintaining their stout defense heading into the season, the main goal is for the Bulldogs to earn a spot in the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2018.

“We want to get back to Georgia basketball which is making the tournament and giving it everything we have,” Conally said.

Players to watch

Jenna Staiti, one of the four senior starters, comes off nine consecutive double-double performances but will look for more ways to get the ball.

“If I'm not getting the ball right away, I need to find other ways to get the ball,” Staiti said in a virtual press conference. “I need to get more offensive rebounds and find ways for my teammates to get the ball as well.”

Along with Staiti, Conally scored in double digits the last five games with an average of 12.7 points per game. On the defensive side, all eyes are on senior guard Que Morrison who has just recovered from her season-ending shoulder injury. Taylor said Morrison has utilized the prolonged offseason to recover and is resembling the strengths from her freshman year.

“I jokingly said to her that she should have had surgery three years ago because she is shooting the ball better than I have ever seen,” Taylor said. “She is playing with the confidence she has had her freshman year.”

Two freshmen — four-star guard Sarah Ashlee Barker from Birmingham, Alabama, and the No. 23 ranked forward Zoesha Smith from Brunswick — will join forces with the team.

At 6 feet, Barker’s length and ability to secure extra possessions in the paint is what Taylor believes will help guide her team to the tournament.

“She has this championship mentality and can score at all three levels,” Taylor said. “She knows how to get herself in the right positions and can use her length against a big guard.”

Two years ago, Georgia lacked experience and now they bring significant leadership and knowledge from past seasons. With the complexities of the pandemic and racial issues in the country, Georgia has a new theme heading into the 2020-21 season: Showing up. Those words will be the epitome of not only what the Bulldogs will do on the court but in their communities as well.

“As challenging as 2020 has been, we have been able to shine a light on a lot of areas and come together as a team to be intentional about what we want to do as basketball players, but also as humans and people in the communities we are living in,” Taylor said.