The Georgia Lady Bulldogs surprised a lot of people last season. Picked ninth in the SEC in the preseason poll, the Lady Bulldogs went 21-7 overall and 10-5 in league play to finish fourth. They also advanced to the SEC Tournament Championship Game for the first time since 2004 and earned their highest NCAA Tournament seed at No. 3 since 2007.
Joni Taylor, in her sixth season leading the program, was named SEC coach of the year.
That team was led by four senior starters so it appeared at first as if this season might require some serious rebuilding. Then came the good news that starters Jenna Staiti and Que Morrison had decided to return as graduate students. They would take advantage of the NCAA's COVID eligibility policy to play one more college season. Morrison is a fifth-year senior. Staiti is in her sixth year in college.
"I do not know if I can put it into words," Taylor said when full practice began at the beginning of October. "It is so great to have them. You go from thinking that you are going to lose four seniors and being very young to having two of them back. Their experience and the miles that they have put on the court is tremendous. They lead the right way. They are both from the state of Georgia and wanted to come back. They felt like they had unfinished business, and I think that also makes its own statement."
The 6-foot-4 Staiti led the SEC with 85 blocked shots last season and put up a career-high 30-point performance in the final regular-season game at Florida.
"I definitely did look into going into the WNBA Draft," Staiti said. "But after many conversations with Coach Joni, it was like, 'How could I not take this opportunity?' It's a really good opportunity for me. I get to finish my master's. I get to spend another year here, and my family and friends get to see me play one more time here at the collegiate level. It all just seemed like I needed to be here."
The 5-7 Morrison finished second on the team in scoring at 11.6 points a game and led Georgia with 98 assists. She also was named SEC co-defensive player of the year.
"I always had it in the back of my head (to return) when I was presented the opportunity," Morrison said. "I wasn't focused on it because I had a season to finish, and that was all I really cared about. Once the season did finish, I kept the window open between coming back and entering the draft when honestly, I always knew I was coming back."
The return of Morrison and Staiti means that Georgia brings back 85 percent of last season's scoring as they rejoin two more graduate students in Mikayla Coombs and Malury Bates and last season's SEC All-Freshman selection Sarah Ashlee Barker. The signing class includes not one but two McDonald's All-Americans and top-40 national recruits in Reigan Richardson and Jillian Hollingshead.
If this Georgia team can repeat or extend the success of a year ago, it's likely to start with the veterans Staiti and Morrison.
"Both of them could have easily gotten drafted and could have gone to play in the WNBA," Taylor said, "so I just think that it speaks to the love that they have for their program and for each other that they wanted to return for another year."