Caliya Robinson, the Georgia women's basketball team’s lone senior, has been adamant all season long that this year’s team is better than its record.
She has consistently pointed out, after both good and bad performances, that the Lady Bulldogs are capable of more. With the season winding down and the team’s slim tournament hopes hanging by a thread, a sense of urgency has kicked in and Georgia is now proving Robinson right.
After a gut-wrenching one-point loss on the road to Auburn on Feb. 3, the team had an extended meeting. Head coach Joni Taylor emphasized the dire situation, the fact that Georgia was rapidly approaching win or go home territory when it comes to a potential NCAA Tournament berth.
Since then, the Lady Bulldogs are 5-1, the only loss coming to a South Carolina team currently ranked No. 14 in the nation. Robinson’s vision of the team’s full potential has come closer to being a reality. Even that one loss was a close defeat, a game that could have gone either team’s way in the fourth quarter.
“I think our team understands that [sense of urgency],” Taylor said. “We’ve had really good focus and good practice and we’ve been able to put good games together. Even South Carolina, a loss is a loss, but we played well. It’s comforting to know we’re able to consistently play well as we head into the SEC tournament.”
The good play is coming not in flashes, disappearing as quickly as it appeared like in the early parts of the season, but consistently, over the course of multiple games against quality opponents.
It’s easy to trace this team success back to Robinson herself, for what she does both in games and between them.
Playing with a young team around her, Robinson’s actions outside of the 40 minutes of game action when her best is expected might be having an even bigger impact than her personal performance.
“She holds everyone to her high expectations,” Gabby Connally said. “She’s never given up on any of us. The season may not have gone how any of us would have liked, but she knows how good we are and how good we can be.”
That starts in practice, where a focused and hungry Robinson is forcing teammates to match her energy and work ethic, living by two simple words.
“I come into practice the same way I go into every day,” Robinson said. “With the same mentality. Kill it. I know in practice, it all starts from there.”
She’s been killing it in games too. Over Georgia’s 5-1 streak since the Auburn loss, Robinson has averaged 18.2 points per game, scoring over 20 in three of the team's last four contests.
Games of 21 points and 11 rebounds against Arkansas on Feb. 21 and 29 and 14 against Alabama on Feb. 24 led her to be named SEC Player of the Week. She added six blocks and seven steals across those games, showing that her increased offensive output isn’t taking anything away from her true calling card — her defense.
The most impressive aspect of Robinson’s play in recent weeks has been her efficiency. Robinson has shot below 57 percent from the field only once over the past six games. It was in Georgia’s loss to South Carolina.
“I think she’s just really dialed in and focused,” associate head coach Karen Lange said. “She’s really taken on ownership for this team finishing well.”
Against Ole Miss she went 10-for-12 from the field on her way to 24 points in a key game for Georgia. Coming off the South Carolina loss and knowing it had little-to-no room for error, Georgia avoided any sort of immediate letdown by dominating the Rebels 78-56.
“We’re peaking at the right time,” Taylor said after that game. “There can be no letdowns for us because of the position we’re in, trying to claw our way back into position not only in the SEC race but to get into the NCAA Tournament.”
Georgia is far from in the clear in regard to a potential NCAA tournament appearance this season. It still desperately needs to win its final regular season game, which is on Sunday against a Kentucky team that is currently ranked No. 11 and tied for third in the SEC.
Even if Georgia wins, it would likely take a deep run through the SEC tournament for the team to get a serious look at the NCAA tournament. If Robinson continues her incredible streak of play and her teammates keep following her example, it’s possible. Far from likely, but possible.
“It’s about finishing,” Lange said. “It’s no secret to our team that we struggled early in the year and maybe lost some games that we felt like we had an opportunity to finish out. We know that -- we’re hungry to finish the season on a good note to show what type of team we really are.”