By Sydney Gibbs
The Georgia women’s basketball team welcomed Kennesaw State into Athens for opening night in Stegeman Coliseum on Thursday night. Behind Gabby Connally’s 28 points and nine assists, the Bulldogs went on to beat the Owls, 80-65 to claim their first win of the 2019 season.
Connally is Georgia’s returning leading scorer with 12.4 ppg in 2018-19. She opens up a lot of things for the Bulldogs with her natural shooting ability, especially from behind the arc where she made four out of her eight attempts.
The Bulldogs are without last season’s first and third leading scorer, Caliya Robinson and Taja Cole. Therefore, Connally took on that leadership position to be that explosive presence the team needs on the floor.
“She’s a junior now,” head coach Joni Taylor said. “She understands the next steps of responsibility that comes with being a point guard but also her production and how important it is for us to be successful.”
Her impact on the court is huge both as a playmaker and as a shooter. Connally understands her role and is excited for where this season is going to take her and the team.
“I realize I do have a bigger role this year than I’ve had my first two years,” Connally said. “I’ve really just been trying to listen to what the coaches have to say with open ears and try to execute whatever it is they tell me to do. I’m just going to do whatever I can to help the team win.”
Georgia’s junior center Jenna Staiti concurs with how important it is to have Connally on the court and realizes that the value she adds to the team’s performance is significant.
“I just know when I set the screen Gabby is going to knock down the shot,” Staiti said. “Having her more confident and having the ball in her hands more times in the game…..we have a lot of trust in her. When her game is flowing our game is flowing.”
Staiti ended the night with her first career double-double recording 16 points and 11 boards. Maya Caldwell also finished in double digits with 18 points, six rebounds and three assists. The Bulldogs struggled getting into a rhythm due to a multitude of missed jumpers and turnovers in the third quarter. Caldwell ignited Stegeman and got fans to their feet after pushing the ball down the court and hitting a wide open three-pointer at the buzzer.
“I thought there was a lot less time so when I caught it and looked at the clock I was like ‘Oh I got time,’” Caldwell said. “I pushed it and I was thinking layup or three so I was like I’m going to shoot it. It felt good.”
Caldwell is going to have a lot more opportunities to make a lot of noise this year with her in the starting line up — both offensively and defensively. She is going to be a major contributor this season.
“Maya is finally looking like what we thought she was going to be,” Taylor said. “She can score in a lot of different ways so we can do a lot of different things with her. We put her in a lot of uncomfortable situations because we know we’re going to have to count on her day in and day out.”
Despite the defensive struggles through the last three quarters, the offense persevered and executed well from the paint and the three-point line. The team shot 45% from the field and 47% from the three making 10 out of their 21 attempts.
Things looked promising from the defensive end of the court during the first quarter as Kennesaw State only shot 26% from the field. After that the defense looked stagnant and wasn’t playing with any motivation to keep the Owls from scoring or rebounding. Kennesaw State’s Alexis Poole led her team with 18 points, going eight of 11 shooting. The point differential in the second half was close and the Owls played them tough once they started to get settled in.
“I’m not very pleased at all with how we defended.” Taylor said. We knew [Kennesaw State] were going to come in and give us a good game. Their guards were comfortable all night long, so we have to do a better job of making them uncomfortable. We did some things defensively that we just cannot do. As happy as I am on how we played offensively I am as disappointed in our defense.”