Jenna Staiti sat in McCamish Pavilion to watch some of her friends play for South Forsyth in the 2014 girls’ basketball state semifinals. Her attention quickly turned to an opposing player.
It was Caliya Robinson clad in the blue-and-gold of McEachern who was a force among her opposition. She blocked shots and was a dominant presence inside-the-paint.
“McEachern, whoa, that is led by No. 4,” Staiti recalled thinking to herself on that March evening. “I knew she was a great player.”
At that time, Staiti was headed to Maryland and the chances of playing alongside Robinson were non-existent.
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But little did the two in-state post players know at the time — Staiti would later transfer to play for the Lady Bulldogs just as Robinson entered her last year of eligibility.
Now, they have a bond strong enough to where Robinson can poke fingers all over Staiti’s face (as her face turns cherry-like red) while walking by and bursting out in laughter.
A duo of Staiti (6-foot-6) and Robinson (6-foot-3) generates a quality that the Lady Bulldogs (11-5, 2-1 SEC) haven’t had since 2003-04 when Kara Braxton and Tasha Humphrey held the same stature: size at each forward position.
“Of course (I like it),” Robinson said. “Big man-to-big man. We work a lot together, so you definitely see the chemistry we have on the court. Jen is like my Mack (former Georgia forward Mackenzie Engram).”
There are similarities and differences to last season’s duo of Robinson and Engram, who stood four inches shorter than Staiti at 6-foot-2. They were versatile and one player could play on the perimeter while the other worked inside-the-paint. It’s the same with Staiti joining Robinson, but Staiti’s frame is a rarity.
Let’s break down the duo’s formation and how it leads frontcourt play that serves as the backbone to Georgia’s fate. And at times, it leaves those watching in awe.
“It’s really exciting to watch them,” said sophomore guard Gabby Connally, who especially appreciates the post players on the defensive end. “I don’t know many post players who can do some of those things.”
Staiti emerges into a ‘monster’
When Staiti was finally eligible to play at Georgia, she hadn’t played meaningful basketball in two years and had yet to do so at the Division I level. Georgia coaches knew Staiti’s potential, but didn’t want to rush her into playing action.
Staiti opened her season by entering during the second quarter of games and getting into a flow in runaway wins over St. Bonaventure and Winthrop. In essence, Staiti was placed in situations where detrimental mistakes were nearly impossible.
Suddenly, the season’s first weekend passed and Staiti couldn’t have been more efficient. Her statline read 19 points, 10 rebounds and three blocks through two games. Oh yeah, on 9-for-9 shooting.
“Guys, it’s only going downhill from here,” Georgia assistant coach Robert Mosley recalled joking to coaches in a staff meeting.
Mosley turned out to be correct as Staiti would go on to miss a few shots, but her production didn’t taper when Georgia decided to give her significant minutes. There were a handful of games where Staiti would be yanked from the rotation (one minute at UCLA, seven against Maryland), but she began to show there was more to her game than being a placeholder.
Staiti was suddenly a threat to the opposition. Not only was she a scoring option around-the-basket who stood taller than anyone else, but she could also shoot the ball from the 3-point line and is doing so at a 7-for-11 (63 percent) clip through 16 games.
“Whenever Jenna shoots it,” Mosley said, “you think it’s going in.”
Staiti’s opportunity materialized when sophomore Malury Bates went down against Mercer with a torn ACL. Bates underwent surgery on Dec. 27, but is lost for the season. There were suddenly more minutes as Georgia only had three available post players — starter Stephanie Paul, who has returned to be a valuable asset after two offseason knee surgeries, being the other.
Staiti knew more minutes would be in the plan, but wasn’t fully utilized until the coaches saw progression in a Dec. 14 loss to Villanova. Georgia head coach Joni Taylor didn’t think it would be a good matchup for Staiti as the Wildcats played a 5-out motion offense — each player starts the possession outside of the perimeter — and a lack of speed was a cause for concern.
Georgia’s offense struggled in an eventual 62-56 loss to Villanova, the team’s third defeat in a four-game stretch, and Staiti didn’t enter until midway through the third quarter. She posted 10 points, three rebounds and three blocks.
Staiti wasn’t removed from the game, played 14 consecutive minutes and was the reason the Lady Bulldogs had the chance to complete a 14-point comeback.
“We should’ve played her more,” Taylor said in a radio interview with Lady Bulldogs’ announcer Jeff Dantzler.
Added Mosley: “We then said ‘This is who we need on the floor.’ Regardless of the opponent, this is a kid who brings value to our team and she will be an integral part going forward.”
Georgia has stood true to its promise since falling to Villanova. Staiti has averaged 24 minutes per game in the following five games and has posted 25-or-more minutes in three-of-four contests. Staiti may not be a starter at any point this season because Georgia likes how Paul sets the pace, but Staiti is receiving starter-type minutes and giving likening production.
“She’s proven and shown she can play longer minutes,” Taylor said on Jan. 3. “She’s more locked into the game plan and (LSU) didn’t have an answer for her. She knows she’s an offensive threat.”
The opponents notice it now, too. Staiti was excited to match-up with Teaira McCowan of Mississippi State, a surefire WNBA first-round draft pick who beats Staiti in size at 6-foot-7. Staiti was able to hit a 3-pointer and tally five blocks, three more than McCowan (the SEC’s leader in blocks).
“We can’t deal with her down there,” Mississippi State head coach Vic Schaefer said. “She’s a monster down there.”
A duo is born
Georgia walked into Stegeman Coliseum for its yearly matchup with Mercer knowing it had a size advantage. The Bears had only one forward in the rotation over 6-foot, and Georgia could counter with Staiti and Robinson.
So, why not play them together? Robinson, as the senior leader up for a plethora of awards, was going to take the heaviest load of minutes. In the preseason, Taylor stated a need for Robinson to play 20 minutes without a substitution, and she’s done so on numerous occasions.
But when Robinson had her statement game against Mercer with 30 points and 17 rebounds, Staiti played the entire fourth quarter alongside her. She added nine points and 10 rebounds of her own in a 67-60 win.
“She’s fun to play with. It makes my job easier, too,” Staiti said. “People aren’t going to leave her wide open because they know that I can score down low.”
A duo, that has shown to be dependable, was born. Once more, it’s the rarity of size that Georgia now has to its advantage. There’s a rim protector, a shooting option closer to the basket and the opportunity to confuse defenses due to their abilities to shoot from the 3-point line.
Last season, Georgia struggled with bigger duos, most notably South Carolina (A’ja Wilson and Alaina Coates) and Tennessee (Mercedes Russell and Jaime Nared). Now, the Lady Bulldogs can match it. Georgia ranks among the nation’s best in blocked shots with 108. Staiti and Robinson combine for 69 of them, which accounts for 64 percent of the team’s blocks.
“Caliya probably likes it more than anything, because it frees her up to leave the paint and do what she’s comfortable doing,” Mosley said. “Jenna does the heavy lifting and allows Caliya to flow. They work well together and feed off of each other.”
Georgia bases its frontcourt rotation based off the game’s flow. There’s no set situation whether to play Staiti, Robinson or Paul in a tandem, but there are times when it’s proven to be beneficial. An example could be taken from Thursday’s loss at Mississippi State, in a game where post production wasn’t a guarantee.
But when Staiti and Robinson found themselves on the floor together, it clicked. Robinson led the way with 26 points, but Staiti opened up her scoring opportunities in a high-low offensive set. On a specific play, Staiti stood behind the perimeter and found Robinson streaking past McCowan for an easy assist.
Size or lack thereof, it’s the development of a tandem that has made Georgia begin to click.
“Jenna learned the importance of having a post duo by watching Caliya and I,” Engram said. “She knows in order for the team to have success, there has to be that presence.”
Key to success
Georgia realized the importance of its three post players when it found itself scrambling against Vanderbilt. As the Lady Bulldogs were trying to close out a road win, each of them fouled out in the fourth quarter and the tallest player Maya Caldwell, at 5-foot-10, was slotted into a forward spot.
Connally and Cole would finish a narrow SEC win over the Commodores, but Georgia realized the importance of its frontcourt in a pressing situation. Paul led the forwards with 23 minutes while Staiti recorded 21 and Robinson had 19.
“It took us out of our game,” Staiti said. “I didn’t want to play physical or go after rebounds, because I was scared about getting another foul called.”
Georgia has also been able to see the benefits of productive frontcourt play, especially in its conference-opening win over LSU as Staiti and Robinson were the driving force to a 13-point victory. They combined for 29 points and accounted for 63 percent of the team’s scoring total.
Mosley, who used to be involved in multiple sports as a high-school coach in Alabama, compared a basketball’s front line to that of a football line-of-scrimmage. In each scenario, the biggest players make the largest influence on the game’s result.
“It’s imperative. The teams who have won, their frontcourt matters,” Mosley said. “They may not get the headlines, but they do the dirty work. (Staiti and Robinson) have welcomed that challenge and that’s been the difference in our season turnaround.”
Georgia knows its season will be largely dependent upon its post presence. Consequently, it is persistent in working with Staiti and Robinson together in certain offensive sets. During practice, the two have a clear idea as to where each player needs to be and the camaraderie continues to grow.
It was all once a dream, but now Staiti and Robinson have the chance to be formidable together.
“They’re comfortable playing with each other,” Taylor said. “They both can score at all three levels. It’s a tough match for defenders.”