ATHENS – If you haven’t been paying attention to that other basketball program on the UGA campus, you’re doing yourself a disservice. Yes, the Lady Dogs are winning a lot of games and they’re hosting an NCAA Tournament regional in Athens. All that’s good and has been done before.
What’s different about Georgia women’s basketball now is who’s leading it.
Certainly, by now you’ve heard the name Joni Taylor. If you haven’t, write it down somewhere so you can remember it.
It’s understandable if you’re a little unclear. She used to be Joni Crenshaw, then she got married, and for a minute she went by the hyphenated name of Joni Crenshaw-Taylor. But now she’s just Joni Taylor. Or, more to the point, Coach Taylor, wife, mother, college basketball coach.
And she’s got it going on. A former Alabama player and assistant coach for Georgia legend Andy Landers, Taylor is just starting to hit her stride in her chosen profession. The Bulldogs are 26-6 in her third season, and all the losses came against top 25 teams, most of them top 10.
Yes, the Lady Dogs had to fight tooth-and-nail for their first-round victory Saturday. That was predictable. The 68-63 final came over a Mercer team Georgia beat by 18 in Macon earlier this season. But that was one of just two losses the Bears (31-3) suffered before the NCAA Tournament, and this was the Super Bowl for them. They brought a huge contingent from Macon and their group was considerably more vocal and invested in the proceedings.
Georgia politely endured the visitors’ hustle and controlled desperation, but then matter-of-factly converted in the low post and at the foul line to make sure the little-sister program always remained behind on the scoreboard. It got frightfully close for a few minutes – one skinny point separated them with 3 minutes, 26 seconds to play.
But the Bulldogs had the bigger, better players and knew it. Forwards Caliya Robinson and Mackenzie Engram each had double-doubles, the former with 23 points and 16 rebounds, the latter with 21-10. And so the threat was fairly painlessly averted.
“We knew we had our hands full with Robinson and Engram,” Mercer coach Susie Gardner said. “I mean, they’re players, professional basketball players.”
And that’s due in no small part to Taylor. As an assistant, she helped beat back outside sources in preventing the Georgia natives from leaving the state, and as head coach she’s charged with developing them.
Taylor is a multi-tool leader. She’s young (39) and has experienced being a female student-athlete on a big campus. She’s been around long enough to have learned from some of the best at Louisiana Tech, Alabama, LSU and Georgia. And she’s driven enough to have gone not only after this job but everything else she wants in life.
She married Darius Taylor, then an assistant coach with the South Carolina women’s program, in August 2015. They had their first child, Jacie Elsie, in November 2016. That came on the heels of being named National Rookie Coach of the Year for her work during the 2015-16 season (21-10).
And Saturday afternoon, Taylor ran down another milestone. She notched her first NCAA Tournament victory.
“I think more than anything it shows our young ladies that anything’s possible,” Taylor said of her life choices. “You can have a great career, you can be married, you can have a family, you can do whatever you choose to do. You can have it all.”
The tourney win was another little hurdle Taylor needed to clear, but her eyes remain focused well down the track. The stated goal has always been to get Georgia back where it belongs and maybe beyond. That would be where Landers once had the Lady Dogs, playing in some Final Fours and always contending for championships.
Mississippi State and South Carolina were the first to step into the void left by Tennessee, but they all feel Georgia and Taylor closing ground from behind. Taylor has the goods, and she has the people, place and means to make things happen.
“I’ve been impressed with what she has done as head coach,” said Gardner, who played on Final Four teams with Georgia and coached for Landers. “We’ve played them a lot and I obviously follow them closely. At times it felt like there was a lack of passion. I was thinking, ‘Where is the emotion?’ It seems like she’s brought that back, and it’s good to see.”
Georgia is not there yet. Both the Lady Dogs and Taylor remain a work in progress. No. 18 Duke (23-8) is up next and, regardless of which team wins, that behemoth known as UConn awaits after that.
The Bulldogs probably aren’t ready to slay that dragon yet. But they’ve eclipsed 25 wins for the first time since 2006-07, and industry experts say Taylor is coaching and recruiting at a level that should see Georgia go up from here.
After the game Saturday, people kept coming up and congratulating Taylor on her first tourney victory. The look on her face said she wasn’t sure what the fuss was about.
Taylor was totally in survive-and-advance mode, and you can tell she plans on bagging a lot more of these.
“[Assistant coach Robert] Mosely is always telling me to stop and enjoy the moments because my mind is always on the next thing, then the next thing, next thing, next thing. But it is a special thing,” Taylor said.
And bound to get more special before it’s over.
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