Dec. 14, 2015
By Matt Winkeljohn | The Good Word
These are the busiest of basketball times for Georgia Tech’s women, and the Yellow Jackets picked up quite a jolt of energy Sunday when Zaire O’Neil played for the first time since tearing up her right knee in March.
As Tech beat Samford 66-55 in McCamish Pavilion to kick off a stretch of four games in eight days after none in the past nine, O’Neil’s six points, one assist and steal in eight minutes did not fully reflect the boost brought by her return – on her 20th birthday, no less.
Sure, the headliner was Aaliyah Whiteside – again – as the ACC’s leading scorer went for game highs of 23 points and 12 rebounds for her third straight double-double and her ninth game of 21 or more points in 10 tries.
The site of 5-foot-11 forward powering in the paint, though, stole the show. The Jackets (7-3) have more muscle in the middle.
“It’s her toughness when she gets the ball, and with how physical she is around the basket,” said head coach MaChelle Joseph. “With her physicality, obviously she gives us a lot of confidence because she wants the ball. She’s a presence on the floor. She’s rusty defensively, but I thought offensively she looked good.”
Save the beginning and end of Sunday’s game, the Jackets rolled offensively. They missed 5-of-8 shots and turned the ball over four times in the first eight minutes, and missed their final six shots and did not score from the field over the game’s final 7:03.
In the 24:56 between those bookends, Tech hit 21-of-34 shots (61.8 percent). The Jackets were 50-50 overall, making 24-of-48 shots against a Samford defense ranked No. 21 in the nation in field goal defense (33.3 percent) while ranking No. 4 nationally in points allowed (48.7).
O’Neil’s minutes were limited. The work she’s put in under the tutelage of trainer Felicia Tucker and strength and conditioning coach Scott McDonald was obvious, and an irrepressible post-game smile spoke volumes.
“It feels good,” O’Neil said. “I’ve been working hard, and I felt like I would be ready. I’ve been going hard to simulate the games in practice.”
The Bulldogs (6-4) took Indiana to overtime Friday before falling, and they were giving the Jackets grief early before O’Neil took the floor for the first time since tearing an anterior cruciate knee ligament March 5 against North Carolina in the ACC Tournament.
She had 14 points, 10 rebounds and two blocked shots at the time, the last of each she would put up in a freshman season where she banked five double-doubles. The Newark, N.J., native closed the books fourth in Tech history among freshman for blocks (36), fifth in rebounds (180) and seventh in points (350) even though she missed three games, and came off the bench in 10.
O’Neil’s first points this season triggered the Jackets.
She entered a 6-6 game with two minutes left in the first quarter, and scored 13 seconds later in her essential fashion – on a power move.
Having established position in the middle of the lane with her back to the basket, O’Neil spun hard – and quickly – to her left and scored over a Bulldog to start a 19-4 run that became a 25-10 Tech lead.
“Scott McDonald and Felicia Tucker did an unbelievable job rehabbing her,” Joseph said. “She’s lost weight. She’s more agile almost after the injury than she was before. That was the No. 1 priority because we felt like her knee would have a better opportunity if she lost weight. She didn’t even look tired, and she’s been out nine months.”
O’Neil closed the first-quarter scoring with a pair of free throws she earned by working up a shot between two Samford defenders.
Whiteside didn’t even attempt a shot until a couple minutes were gone in the second quarter, yet she scored eight in the period and the Jackets scored the first 12 points of the quarter to lead by 15.
O’Neil scored quickly again after entering for the second time, with 3:47 left in the second quarter. Her short jumper at 3:37 gave her six points in just over two minutes of playing time to that point. Tech led 29-18.
She may have shrunk a bit, although her strength remains impossible to miss, yet there is evidence that O’Neil has more skills than before. “Actually, I do,” she said. “I feel like with the help of coach Kevin [Morrison], coach Rob [Norris], and coach [M.L.] Lewis, doing more post moves, more jump shots, just made me more comfortable doing more stuff.”
Maybe O’Neil didn’t get a chance to get tired. Her second playing stint lasted just 48 seconds. There’s more coming.
“She’s a competitor, and she wants to get rid of the nerves before the ACC starts,” Joseph said. “You’ve got to build your level up to be able to go against elite athletes night in and out. She’s going to get some limited minutes as we go.”
As the Jackets stay busy with games Tuesday against Prairie View A&M, Friday against Alabama and Sunday at IUPUI in Indianapolis as their final tune-ups before ACC action begins Dec. 30 at Notre Dame, they have more juice.
“It’s another offensive weapon,” Whiteside said of O’Neil. “She can definitely bang inside. Last year, I thought she had a great year and I’m excited to have her back to help us out. We’re more dangerous now.”