The music of Rihanna, along with the noise of basketballs thumping and sneakers squeaking on the court, plays in the background in the University of Georgia women’s basketball practice facility. With their first game approaching on Sunday, the Lady Bulldogs are gearing up for a new era under coach Joni Taylor.
While much has remained the same, there is a new, urgent dynamic to their practices.
This time last year, Andy Landers led every aspect of practice, as he had done for more than three decades as UGA’s head coach. The structure was as follows: a huddle before, light jogging, drills, and instruction followed by execution. Practice was a different kind of quiet, with only a few key voices heard the entire time.
While the format remains almost identical, this year’s practices are not the same. Taylor, a Landers assistant who was promoted to head coach last March, is trying to instill a new sense of excitement in a team that last year didn’t make the NCAA Tournament field for the first time in 21 seasons.
“We must clap on every drill,” said UGA senior guard Tiaria Griffin. “We have to have a lot of energy and we have to talk a lot more. If not, we run.”
At a recent practice, the buzzer on the scoreboard sounded, the music shut off, and the team huddled in the middle of the floor around their new leader. The news just broke that the Lady Bulldogs are No. 9 in the Southeastern Conference preseason rankings.
As Taylor addressed her team, her voice dripped the disrespect she felt. She wanted her team to feel it, too.
“It pisses me off that nobody expects anything from us and it should piss you off, too,” Taylor said. “Everybody here has a job to do every day. It’s your job to hold each other accountable.”
She concluded that this day was going to be about zone practice.
The gym filled with noise as the girls jogged a few laps. Associate head coach Karen Lange stood on the sidelines, handing out high fives as the team circled around and clapped. She reminded everyone to make noise. A minute later, the scoreboard shrilled and forced them to the baseline. Not everyone clapped. They had to run a 10-second sprint.
Drills are meticulous. A simple layup drill becomes a choreographed chaos of balls flying and players sprinting. Forward Merritt Hempe began one such drill with the ball. One teammate set up in the middle of the court and two stood at the end. One strong pass at a time, Hempe moved the ball while in a full-court sprint for the layup. She sank it every time, as she called out her teammates’ names with each pass.
The drills reflect transition scenarios in order to prepare for a fast-paced offense. Last year, drills were more stationary. This change means an abundant amount of running during practice.
“The biggest thing is conditioning,” said Taylor. “We amped it up in the summer and in the preseason.”
The players have their own goals for improvement. Sophomore forward Mackenzie Engram averaged 7.7 points per game and 4.5 rebounds as a freshman. She said her relative lack of size (she’s 6-foot-2) makes her insecure on the court. This year, being more physical is her goal.
Also, Taylor’s offense often will set up with one player in the paint and the others on the perimeter.
“I have to work on my passing because there’s a lot of cut action and I must be on time,” Engram said, adding that she’s also working on “being more comfortable” with outside shots.
She did just that during the 11-man drill at practice, as she sank back-to-back shots from the perimeter. This drill emphasizes three-on-two offensive and defensive movement and focuses on rebounding, transitioning, conditioning, and passing.
All the intensity comes with a reward. Mondays are off days for the team. This gives the players time to rest and catch up academically.
However, when it comes time to practice, “it’s an emergency,” according to Taylor.
“That is one of the things I always say. That is my one-liner,” she said. “I’ll say, ‘Guys, if that ball gets penetrated to the baseline, it’s an emergency.’ ‘When that ball goes up, it’s an emergency.’”
The team’s theme for the year is “greatness together.” At the season opener Sunday fans might not hear any Rihanna hits, but they can expect to see a new Lady Bulldogs basketball team.
— By Emily McLanahan, Special for DawgNation. McLanahan is a student in the Sports Media Certificate program at UGA’s Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication