Looking for Separation

March 1, 2012

By Matt Winkeljohn
Sting Daily

By any measure, be it academic achievement, the graduation rates of players, regular season wins, post-season appearances or whatever, Georgia Tech women’s basketball has been rocking for several seasons.

Problem is, head coach MaChelle Joseph is not to be bothered by just any index.

She’s always interested in next. It was that way growing up, it was that way when she left Purdue as the leading scorer in Big 10 history, and it remains unchanged.

Win or lose, she wants more, and it had damned well better be winning because she loathes losing so much more than she loves winning that it’s hard to explain.

To simplify, the foundation of her foremost yearning goes like this: Joseph wants a certain kind of respect for the Yellow Jackets, and the best time to earn it has arrived.

Joseph talks even faster this time of year because the postseason is here.

“Five years ago, we became a [regular] NCAA [tournament] team. Three years ago, we became a top 25 program. Now, we’re trying to get into the top 15, top 10, and the way you do that is win and advance,” she said. “You’ve got to win and advance when it matters.”

That’s now.

Last season was the first in program history in which the Jackets made it to the ACC tournament semifinals in consecutive years after they upset Maryland in the quarters.

This season was the first that Tech (22-7, 12-4 ACC) won 12 conference games, and the first time the Jackets finished better than fourth in the league (tied for third) and they tied the school record for regular-season wins.

It’s not enough.

A win today over perennial power North Carolina (20-10, 9-7) — whom Tech beat in Chapel Hill on Feb. 12 — would make three straight semifinals, and that would not be enough to appease the often breathless one.

Stack all the regular season accolades that you want, and there have been plenty, but Joseph’s not in a mood to look back. Her team has been bopping its head against a glass ceiling for a few years, lurking in the top 25 nationally but not quite peeking in on the next level. As you read this, the Jackets are ranked No. 15 and No. 18 in polls.

What more could you ask? Tech has motive, and this weekend in Greensboro, N.C., there is opportunity to improve that.

The Jackets have two All-ACC second-team players in senior center Sasha Goodlett and sophomore guard Tyaunna Marshall, and senior point guard Metra Walthour was absolutely robbed to not even garner honorable mention. Joseph is biased, of course, but she knows a thing or two about guard play, and she’s convinced that Walthour is not only one of the two best PGs in the ACC, but one of the top handful in the nation.

This Tech team took perhaps a little longer to gel than some of Joseph’s teams, perhaps because the coach has integrated some new styles.

Guards Dawnn Maye and Sydney Wallace — a sophomore who barely had a chance to make an impact last season after surgery to insert rods in her legs, and a freshman — give Tech a quickness component beyond that of previous seasons.

These Jackets shoot the 3-ball a little better than their forebears as well, but the postseason tends to be less about that and more about slugging it out.

Officials choke their whistles more often, and the game can take on a more rudimentary form. This is not a graceful time of year.

Good thing Goodlett’s around. The 6-foot-5 Mississippian has played especially big in some of Tech’s biggest games. She had 20 points and 10 rebounds against No. 5 Maryland, 19 points and 10 rebounds against No. 13 Miami, 25 points against No. 5 Duke, and 19 points and 12 rebounds at No. 15 Georgia.

Those rankings are all different since those meetings, but Goodlett is not.

The game changes now, though, and she’s looking ever so forward to it.

“I think it’s more physical [in the postseason] because it’s win-or-go-home. You come big, or go home,” she said. “Everyone feels like we’re a lot more focused on defense, [there’s] a lot more focus of the offense going through the go-to players, and trying to stop go-to players and trying to make underclassmen step up.

“It’s a stage set for whoever wants it more.”

Joseph’s Jackets have won 20 or more games in six consecutive seasons, and will make it to the NCAA tournament for the sixth straight time (and eighth time in school history).

With a five-game winning streak and losses only to teams that were ranked in the top 15 at the time Tech played them, the Jackets are not a sleeper. But they’re not yet white hot.

The fuse waits to be lit. No need to wait until the NCAA tournament begins next week; the ACC’s Duke, Maryland and Miami are ranked Nos. 5, 6 and 7.

The Jackets want a piece of that.

First in the way on the road to (greater) respect: the Tar Heels. “We need some separation, and the only way you get separation as a program is to start beating teams in the top 15. We’ve beaten teams in the top 25; we are a top 25 program,” Joseph said. “Now, it’s time for us to compete with these teams and have a chance to get to the Sweet 16.

“We need to create separation for Georgia Tech women’s basketball.”

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