Georgia coach Joni Taylor reveals key injury contributed to NCAA tourney loss

Jenna Staiti led Georgia with 18 points and 9 rebounds in its loss to Oregon in the second round of the NCAA Women's Basketball Tournament in San Antonio.

SAN ANTONIO — Eighty-six seconds remained and Georgia trailed by two. It mounted a comeback, and coach Joni Taylor felt confident to the point of turning toward the fans in attendance, clapping loudly and then hugging her players at mid-court to build energy as Oregon called timeout.

Georgia had the momentum in that moment. It had finished games on so many occasions this season, so it was logical to think that the Lady Bulldogs could do it again. Oregon had possession, and Sedona Prince — who led the way with 22 points at 6-foot-7 – missed a short jumper. Her teammate, Nyara Sabally, had the rebound and laid it back in.

Sabally made two more layups in a matter of 1:26. She sealed it. Georgia’s season was over.

“We put ourselves in a good position; Sabally made a play when she needed to,” Taylor said in the postgame news conference Wednesday. “They made plays. We weren’t able to get stops at crucial times of the game.”

Georgia, a team with national title aspirations after winning 20 games entering the tournament, fell in the round of 32 to Oregon, 57-50 at the Alamodome. The Lady Bulldogs fell short of reaching their first Sweet 16 since 2013.

Georgia hung around with the Ducks until the game’s final moment and took numerous leads. The team’s shooting woes, at a clip of 35% and 1-of-13 from the 3-point line, proved costly in a loss where the Lady Bulldogs had their per-usual stout defense.

“I’m extremely proud of our team. I don’t think anybody, except for the 13 ladies on our team, thought we were capable of (this run),” Taylor said.

“We believed all year long. We played with heart. We played with toughness. I’m so proud of our seniors and how they led us all year long, given the challenging times we faced. Not the way we wanted it to end, but very, very proud of our team.”

Georgia’s third quarter of play proved to be costly. It shot 2-of-9 in the period with six turnovers. It resulted in scoring only six points in the 10-minute span while Oregon built a seven-point lead.

The Lady Bulldogs couldn’t find rhythm against Oregon’s 2-3 zone and the size of the Ducks’ frontcourt. Meanwhile, only four Oregon players scored and Prince and Sabally combined for 37 of the team’s 57 points.

“I don’t think they did anything special, they’re just a great team,” senior center Jenna Staiti said, who finished with 18 points and nine rebounds. “We stopped ourselves, to be honest with you. For example, I didn’t shoot the ball wide open, and that’s not me.”

Over the season’s previous 26 games before arriving in San Antonio, Georgia had a clean bill of health. The injuries were minor. There were very few absences, and Taylor used the same starting five in every contest.

Georgia caught misfortune at an inopportune time. Freshman Sarah Ashlee Barker never made the trip for an undisclosed reason.

The biggest blow of all, however, came with senior point guard Gabby Connally. She suffered an ankle injury March 14 and played only 11 minutes against Drexel and Oregon.

Connally averaged 11.5 points per game and finished as Georgia’s third-leading scorer. Her homecoming in Texas ended on a sour note for a player who posted a handful of 20-point games this season and had the potential for a breakout game on any given night.

“Of course it affects us. It changes us, but that’s the hand we were dealt. We had to try to manage it as best we could,” Taylor said. “She’s out there playing on one leg. I don’t think anybody — and rightfully so because we haven’t disclosed it — understands the extent of the injury. For her to attempt to play is miraculous in itself. We don’t have our second-leading scorer, our starter for three years, our floor general.”

After the loss, Georgia said farewell to four seniors — Connally, Staiti, Maya Caldwell and Que Morrison. Taylor said they “played their last game,” but the official status of their extra season of eligibility because of the pandemic is unknown.

Georgia will welcome four freshmen into the fold next season. Five-star prospect Reigan Richardson leads the group along with four-star Jillian Hollingshead, three-star Kimora Jenkins and Alina Sendar of the Netherlands.

In the instant of a layup, Georgia’s successful season fell short of its ultimate dream. It gave itself a chance, but Oregon’s size proved to be too much.

“This hurts right now,” Taylor said. “We’re upset.”

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