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Lacking a ‘first punch’: Lady Bulldogs recognize fault after stumbling to consecutive losses

Special to the Telegraph

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Georgia Lady Bulldogs 2018-2019 season

After an impressive 2017-2018 season, the Lady Bulldogs led by head coach Joni Taylor hope to capitalize on their success this year. Check out some of the highlights from the 2018-2019 season.

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Late in the first quarter, Georgia found itself in a tie game and quite the ideal situation. Texas A&M point guard Chennedy Carter sprinted toward the bench with two fouls, would sit for seven minutes and the opportunity was golden.

Carter is the SEC’s leading scorer entering Sunday’s play with an average of 20.5 points per game (yes, that’s even higher now), and the Lady Bulldogs had a chance to build a lead. Georgia’s advantage of not having to contend with Carter is like the New England Patriots being without Tom Brady for a quarter, in spirit of the NFL conference championships, of course. Or as her head coach Gary Blair compared Carter to a scoring guard like Russell Westbrook, it’s fairly significant.

Rather than utilizing the opportunity, Georgia lacked a jolt of energy. Texas A&M scored on two consecutive possessions and went on a small run in her absence. When Carter returned with 6:48 in the second quarter, the Aggies went on a 22-8 spurt over a 19:01 span. As was the case in five-of-six conference games, Georgia allowed its opponent to have the first momentum swing and it led to a 76-66 defeat.

“We didn’t come out like we should’ve, and we don’t throw the first punch,” said forward Jenna Staiti, Georgia’s second-leading scorer with 14 points. “It put us in a position where it’s hard to come back from.”

Frankly, the Lady Bulldogs have looked complacent to open SEC games, especially in its three losses. Georgia (12-7, 3-3 SEC) was making its fair share of shots, but there was a lack of focus in rebounding (Aggies’ forward N’Dea Jones played as if there was a six-inch height advantage and finished with 21 rebounds) and opposing turnovers weren’t forced. Those are two staples to the Lady Bulldogs’ success, or what Staiti calls “money.”

The downfall hasn’t been as apparent in the first quarter, but it’s the next 10 minutes that has proven to be kryptonite. Texas A&M built a 17-12 second-quarter advantage over Georgia, and it has carried a deficiency in all-but-one SEC contest (the other was a tie). The trend has shown the Lady Bulldogs to find a semblance of rhythm in the third quarter, and it was the same case in Sunday’s loss.

But as the final score shows, an early deficit became too much for Georgia to overcome.

“We have to be aggressive and we haven’t done that over the last two games,” Georgia head coach Joni Taylor said.

Added Carter: “We had more composure in this game.”

Lady Bulldogs’ point guard Gabby Connally, who drew praise from Blair with 18 points after a 37-point performance against Texas A&M last season, connected the early sluggishness back to the practice court. In nearly every instance for Georgia this season, whether it be success or failure, it has been based on practice performance.

Georgia has a bye week before hosting Alabama on Jan. 27, and it will begin there once more. Staiti said it falls at an ideal time as there is opportunity to re-evaluate after consecutive losses for the second time this season (the other being in November at UCLA and Georgia Tech).

“There are some moments where our scout team scores on us … maybe three possessions in a row,” Connally said. “From there, you can feel the dump in energy. That’s what happens in games. When the other team goes on a run, we drop off a little bit.”

As Georgia clawed itself back into second-half contention, it seemed as if the so-called Stegeman magic would continue. After all, the Lady Bulldogs were 10-0 entering play and its last home win involved a mirror-like narrative. Staiti became a force after fouling out in only six minutes against Missouri, and Taja Cole was leading the offensive surge with eight points and six assists.

But to no avail as things went awry after Georgia tied the game at 55. Another Aggie run, 9-0 this time, and no Lady Bulldog answer. Caliya Robinson was called for a technical foul, one she didn’t agree with and said postgame: “I was giving the ball back to her and I didn’t know that was a tech. That’s OK. It’s fine.”

Nevertheless, that became the late-game turning point for Georgia. Blair said Texas A&M would’ve rather tried to win with Robinson on the floor, but it gave the Lady Bulldogs perspective as to how their biggest fault -- slow starts -- can prove detrimental.

“You have to control the things you can control and not put it in somebody else’s hands,” Taylor said. “There were too many plays tonight, especially when we tied the game, that we left it to others to make decisions -- whether it was not being aggressive or hoping for a call.”

It was something that Staiti said at least four times after the defeat: Georgia’s progress can be transformative with early-game energy. So, it’s the bye-week focus. Despite losing, there was a hint of confidence to the Lady Bulldogs. This wasn’t the 61-35 drubbing that Georgia took on Thursday night at Missouri; instead Connally believed it played with a purpose and smaller technicalities were the issue.

“When we all play our role together, we’re phenomenal,” Robinson said. “We have to nitpick at the little things in order to finish our season strong.”

Georgia also has some let-up in its schedule. As the coaches will rightfully say, each game in the SEC can bring any result and that’s proven to be true. But Georgia got through its gauntlet of four NCAA tournament teams at a 1-3 record and a closely-contested effort in two of those losses. Now, it has only two ranked opponents remaining (South Carolina and Kentucky), and the next doesn’t come until Feb. 14.

So, does Georgia have to worry about the season spiraling? Not a chance, according to the fourth-year head coach.

“We’re a long way from that and there’s a lot of basketball left,” Taylor said. “We lost to two really good teams, and that’s not what we want at all. We’re going to bounce back and be ready to go. You can’t get to too high, too low, fall behind and look ahead. There are way too many games left to play to be talking about anything else other than the next game.”

Her players have the same thought, and believe a thrilling win over Tennessee then a blowout loss to Missouri served as “fuel to the fire.” Georgia knows its identity and potential, but whether to make its own opportunity golden lay in the Lady Bulldogs’ hands.

“It’s wherever we want to go,” Staiti said.

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