Bring It On!
Women’s basketball finishes non-conference slate, is fired up for start of ACC play
By Jon Cooper
The Good Word
Imagine a game where Francesca Pan shoots 2-for-12, is the fifth-leading scorer with eight points and Georgia Tech wins…by 19, no less.
Head coach MaChelle Joseph couldn’t, yet that’s exactly what she saw Thursday afternoon at McCamish Pavilion, as her Yellow Jackets routed Southern Miss, 63-44, to finish their non-conference schedule at 11-2.
In this season of giving, Georgia Tech’s depth has given Pan a reprieve from a rare shooting slump and the Yellow Jackets a pair of nice non-conference wins.
“The last two games she’s struggled and Chanin (Scott) and Kierra (Fletcher) have done a great job and our post players have done a great job stepping up,” said Joseph.
The win over the Golden Eagles gave the Yellow Jackets 11 wins in non-conference play for the second straight year (last season they were 11-3), and marked the fourth straight season with at least 10 non-conference wins.
But this year’s team is different. It’s experienced but brings most of that experience off the bench while starting two freshmen and two sophomores. It’s also deeper.
It’s a team that doesn’t necessarily live or die with its leading scorer (Pan), nor does it panic and force-feed the ball inside to bigs Zaire O’Neil and Elo Edeferioka when the outside game isn’t there. They simply have someone else step up.
As they showed again yesterday, they will hit the three when challenged to do so by teams packing the lane. On Thursday, the tandem of sophomore three Scott and freshman two-guard-turned point Kiera Fletcher led this balanced attack.
“Chanin Scott continues to get better and better,” said Joseph. “Other than her (five) turnovers I thought she played probably one of her best games that she’s had at Georgia Tech and Kierra Fletcher is starting to come into her own. She’s starting to understand her role and starting to understand how to play point guard on this team.”
Scott scored a game-high 17, shooting 6-for-7, 3-for-3 on three-pointers. She now has made eight threes for the season, five of them coming over the past three games, where she’s 5-for-6. Scott was 3-for-14 over her first 10 games. Scott also was 2-for-2 from the line. Talk about a hot hand, 17-of-26 shots (65.4 percent shooting) and 5-for-6 on free throws in her past three. Scott also hit the boards Thursday, grabbing six rebounds, two on the offensive end — both tying O’Neil for game-highs.
Fletcher added 10 points on 4-for-7 shooting, with three assists, to one turnover.
That 10 is a magic number for her, according to Joseph.
“I told her we need her to score 10 points a game for us to win,” Joseph said. “She’s come out the last couple of games and looked to be more aggressive offensively and I think Chanin is really playing well off the ball, too. So it’s going to take some of the pressure off of Francesca going into ACC.
“We knew it was just a matter of time before she figured it out because she came to us as a scorer and she wasn’t really scoring,” she added. “I think she was just trying to get the ball to her teammates.”
O’Neil delivered Thursday, scoring 11 points and pulling in the six boards, while also dishing out a career-high six assists (vs. one turnover), and two blocked shots. Many of her six assists came from deft passes out of double- and triple teams.
“She gets a lot of attention when she’s on the low block and so I think she’s doing a really good job finding her teammates,” said Joseph. “She made a couple of really nice passes today on the kickouts, finding the guards on the perimeter and I thought Chanin did a great job knocking those shots down.”
Edeferioka chipped in 10 points, her third straight double-figure-scoring game, during which she’s shot 58.7 percent (17-for-29, 5-for-6 on Thursday).
“It’s just being confident,” said Edeferioka, who added two blocked shots, her second multi-block game of the year. “As a senior I have to be there for my team when they need me, so I’m just doing the little things I can to help them. We need each other at this point. So we’re looking out for each other.”
While Edeferioka was big early, Joseph pointed to two plays in the final 31 seconds of the second quarter that rekindled the spark. Both involved Pan, who found ways to contribute other than scoring.
With GT holding a 28-25 lead, she scored on a layup off a nifty pass from the double-teamed O’Neil. Then, on the ensuing possession, Pan outhustled the Golden Eagles to gather a rebound and fired an outlet pass to senior point Imani Tilford, who had gotten ahead of the field. Tilford dribbled down the lane, pulled up, allowing the bigger So. Miss. defender to pass her by, then laid the ball in just ahead of the buzzer. The 4-0 burst gave the Jackets a 32-25 halftime edge.
“That was really key,” said Joseph. “We had our veterans out there and I think they really dug in and made some heads-up plays, especially that final shot, when ‘Chubbs’ got that layup.”
At halftime, the team regrouped and came out energized on both ends. They smothered the Golden Eagles, outscoring them 16-4, holding them scoreless for 7:36. Southern Miss went 0-for-8 in that span and turned the ball over on three straight possessions.
“In the third quarter we went back into our press, but I also thought we picked up our intensity a little bit,” Joseph said. “(Freshman forward Lorela) Cubaj didn’t play much in the first half and she’s one of our best defensive players. I think getting her back in the game, with her length on the inside, really bothered them. They weren’t able to get the penetration that they were getting in the first half.”
“When we came in at halftime we were like, ‘Right now we have to decide what we want. It’s about going for what we want,’” said Edeferioka. “So that was exactly what we did. We played together and we talked on defense. We started with the defensive end.”
Joseph stated that defense is still this team’s calling card.
“Defensively we’re right where we want to be. It’s offensively we’ve got to get everybody clicking. That’s going to take some time,” she said. “As we go into ACC play it’s going to be a matter of finding where we can score on each opponent. We’re going to have to grind it out. We’re going to have to keep people in the 50s to win and that’s going to be tough to do with some of these ACC teams. But we’ve built the program on defense and rebounding and we’ve become a tremendous defensive team this year.”
They’ll also need to continue to be opportunistic as ACC play begins. The Jackets outscored So. Miss. 16-12 off turnovers and is now 11-2 when winning that category. They also held a 10-4 edge on the offensive glass and a won second-chance points, 14-2 — they’re now 10-3 when winning or even in second-chance points.
The Jackets will need to continue winning these battles as they begin a conference schedule that is unforgiving, and brutal even by ACC standards. Tech’s first five conference games are Dec. 28 vs. No. 3 Louisville, Clemson three days later, at Syracuse on Jan. 4, hosting No. 2 Notre Dame on Jan. 7, then at NC State on the 10th. The combined record of those five opponents is 57-7 (an 89.0 winning percentage).
“If you look ahead in this league you get overwhelmed. If you look behind in this league you get overwhelmed,” Joseph said. “You have to take it one game at a time. You have to focus on one opponent at a time.
“You have to get ready for a tough Louisville team and then you have to get ready for the next opponent,” she stated. “We’re going to give Louisville everything they can handle on the 28th and they’re going to give us everything we can handle.”
“Louisville’s a really good team. I feel like we have a good team, also,” said Edeferioka. “So we’re excited about the game and we’re ready.”
Joseph feels the team, and especially Pan, will be even more ready with a few days off to recharge.
“We’re going to need her. There’s no doubt about it,” she said. “Hopefully she’ll get to go home and catch her breath and come back in a different place mentally, physically and emotionally. I think it’s hard for those kids to be away from home for so long. They get a chance to go home and catch their breath and come back. I think you’ll see a different player when ACC season starts.”