Lady Bulldogs are back in Top 25 and building on tradition

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Lady Bulldogs are back in Top 25 and building on tradition
Georgia coach Joni Taylor speaks with guard Que Morrison (23) during the team's NCAA college basketball game against Missouri in Athens, Ga., Thursday, Jan. 25, 2018. (Joshua L. Jones/Athens Banner-Herald via AP)

ATHENS, Ga. (AP) — Taja Cole was only 3 years old when Georgia won its last SEC regular-season championship in 2000.

Still, Cole knows about Georgia’s rich history, including five Final Four appearances and 20 Sweet 16s.

Third-year coach Joni Taylor has made sure her players understand that history. She spent four years as an assistant under former longtime coach Andy Landers and uses lessons about Georgia’s past success as motivation to refresh that tradition.

“It means a lot,” Cole said. “I talk to my teammates all the time that when we play we’re not just playing for us. The people that played here built a platform for Georgia and we want to get it back to that, to show them we appreciate them and we appreciate the things they did for us.”

Taylor has the Lady Bulldogs back in contention in the Southeastern Conference. After moving into the Top 25 this week for the first time in three years, No. 21 Georgia (18-2, 6-1 Southeastern Conference) beat No. 11 Missouri 62-50 on Thursday night. It was a season scoring low for Missouri.

“I think that was probably the best defensive team we’ve gone against all year,” said Missouri coach Robin Pingeton, adding she believes Georgia is going “to do very, very well the remainder of the season. Joni has done a phenomenal job.”

Senior Haley Clark said the team’s “Earn Yours” slogan is based on the drive to update Georgia’s tradition.

“Basically earn your right to say you’re a part of Georgia basketball,” Clark said. “Earn your position in Georgia basketball history.”

There’s an obvious gap in that history. The Lady Bulldogs have not won a national championship.

Georgia finished 16-15 last season, missing the NCAA Tournament. This team has better depth thanks to a strong freshman class led by starting guard Que Morrison, who had 17 points and eight rebounds against Missouri. Another freshman, Gabby Connally, scored 37 points in a win at then-No. 17 Texas A&M on Jan. 14.

Cole, a sophomore point guard, has helped lead the return to contention for Georgia, which will take a six-game winning streak into Sunday’s game at Florida.

Georgia is second in the SEC, one game behind No. 2 Mississippi State, one of two teams to beat the Lady Bulldogs. Georgia also lost to No. 6 Texas.

Taylor didn’t talk to her players about this week’s ranking.

“Our goal is not to be ranked,” Taylor said after Thursday night’s win. “Our goal is to put Georgia back to national prominence and to make coach Landers proud and to make these former players proud who made all the sacrifices to make this program what it is.”

Taylor’s husband, Darius Taylor, was recently hired as an assistant coach for the WNBA Atlanta Dream. He left his job as a South Carolina assistant when Joni Taylor was named Georgia’s coach.

“For him to make that sacrifice for us and then two years later this happen for him, I can’t wait to support him,” she said. “I can’t wait to watch games and I’m super proud of him for being patient and understanding that his opportunity was going to come.”

Taylor was associate head coach for three of her four years on Landers’ staff. She’s still motivated to win for her former boss, now an analyst for ESPN and the SEC Network.

“We talk all the time,” Taylor said. “Andy is my friend. He obviously is my mentor. In everything we do, in everything our staff does and I do, we think about making him proud because he built Georgia basketball. This is all him. I want to make him proud.”