When Andy Landers retired as UGA’s longtime women’s basketball coach after last season, it was unclear what the future had in store for the SEC program.
But first-year coach Joni Taylor has given the Bulldogs a fresh identity.
“I was extremely happy for (Taylor) when she got the job,” UGA senior guard Marjorie Butler said. “People were caught off guard with Landers retiring, but she came in and made us feel comfortable, and she started making changes.”
Taylor first began her coaching career at Troy in 2002 when she spent three years as an assistant coach before moving to Louisiana Tech and LSU. In 2011, Taylor joined Georgia’s staff, spending one season as an assistant coach and three as associate head coach.
When Landers retired, he gave his blessing to Taylor to take his place, making her only the second full-time head coach in the program’s history.
“When the change happened, we made a commitment to making things better,” Taylor said. “We’ve asked them to do things they weren’t used to management wise, and they’ve bought into it and stepped up.”
Georgia is currently 12-1 under Taylor, which is one of the best starts in history for a first-year coach in the Southeastern Conference. Heading into the new year with an 11-game win streak, the Bulldogs have seen a lot of improvements since last season.
“We worked really hard in the offseason with a lot of conditioning,” UGA senior forward Merritt Hempe said. “Defensively, we’ve held our opponents under 40 percent field goal shooting, so I think our defense has played huge role in our start this year.”
Georgia sits at No. 1 in the SEC in scoring defense (49.8 points per game) and No. 1 in field goal percentage defense (31.9 percent). The Bulldogs have also held seven of their opponents to their season lows in scoring, including the big 70-52 win over No. 14 Seton Hall.
In addition to UGA’s defense, more improvements over last season include pushing the ball more in transition, communicating more on the court and having a more “positive energy.”
“Something (Taylor) emphasised more than in previous years is positive energy and attitudes,” Butler said. “This year, you see a team having a good time. As a senior, you know this is it for you. For some people, like myself, this is their last time playing ball. There’s a new sense of urgency and leadership.”
Though getting used to a new offense has led to a few scoring slumps, UGA’s cohesiveness gives an added spark to the season.
“A lot of players have stepped up for us,” Butler said. “People have come back from injury and contributed. You need those reps in first half of the season to prepare for conference play, and if they’re behind, it’s hard. But everyone has contributed, and it gives us a depth we didn’t have last year.”
Butler was a member of the 2012-13 UGA team that made it to the Elite Eight. She and the other veterans are hoping to get back to the promised land.
“We have five seniors: four who’ve played a lot and two who’ve started since freshman year,” Taylor said. “They don’t talk about it a lot, but I think they’re disappointed in how last year ended with them not making the tournament for the first time in 20 years. I think they’re on a mission to right that wrong and to help the younger guys bring tradition back to Georgia.”
The Bulldogs will continue their journey back to the tournament in the new year with their first conference game at Texas A&M on Jan. 3.
“The sky’s the limit for this team,” Taylor said. “There’s not one player that can carry the team, but as a team we’re really good. Everyone has their role, and everyone knows their role is not the same as person next to them. It’s going to get tougher because we’re in a good conference, but I think they’re ready.”
With Taylor in command, the Bulldogs’ future could be a bright one.
“She is a great head coach simply because of the person she is,” Butler said. “She is someone players and recruits can look up to. She is someone us players enjoy talking to, and she’s easy to connect with. She’s a great new face for Georgia women’s basketball.”