#TGW: Chemistry Class

#TGW: Chemistry Class
Women’s basketball opens practice, starting to get the feel of playing together
By Jon Cooper

There’s no formula for creating good chemistry on the basketball court.

It’s a process of trial and error, discovering what works, noting it then, when necessary, adding new elements to the mix and starting the process again.

For 16 years, MaChelle Joseph has been superb at finding chemistry for her Georgia Tech women’s basketball teams. It’s how her teams have reached the 20-win plateau 10 times and played beyond the regular season and conference tournament 11 times in the past 12 years.

The Yellow Jackets have made the first steps in making it 11 20-win seasons and 12 extended seasons recently starting practice and Joseph is in full chemist mode.

“The number one thing right now as we’re going through these preseason scrimmages and these exhibition games is just to kind of see different lineups, develop different chemistry on the court,” she said. “See who starts a game well, who finishes a game well, who we can count on off the bench to come in, defensively or offensively, to give us a spark.

“In particular, it’s really important to find out what contribution these freshmen can make, at what level, how many minutes can they play at a high level, all those things,” she added. “Practice is totally different than the game, so you just never know until you get them in those situations.”

Some things she does know. Improving on last season’s 20-14 season (6-10 in the ACC) and coming within a three-point shot of reaching the Sweet 16 of the WNIT will rely on the leadership of junior guard Francesca Pan and sophomores Kierra Fletcher, who earned ACC All-Freshman status, while leading the team in assists (78), finishing second in minutes (26.5 mpg) and is the leading returning rebounder (5.2 rpg), and forward Lorela Cubaj, who last year led in blocked shots (26), and was second in steals (46).

Joseph is pleased with how her big three showed up to camp and how they improved during the summer.

It all starts with Pan, the 2017 ACC Freshman of the Year — she somehow was left off the ‘18 all-ACC Team — and Jackets leader in scoring (14.3 ppg), three-point shooting (79 3-point field goals, .326) and minutes (31.1).

“I think she’s playing at the top of her game right now. She’s doing a lot of things, not just shooting threes. She’s running the team, she’s getting people in the right spots, she’s rebounding the ball, she’s starting the offense. The game has slowed down for her. She seems to be very confident in her abilities and I think she understands how important her leadership is to this young team.”

Fletcher opened eyes last year, coming in as a two but quickly winning the starting point guard spot, then earned ACC All-Freshman honors.

“The thing that impressed me the most about Kierra last year was just her toughness,” said Joseph. “I mean she played a lot of minutes — 30 minutes a game as a freshman in the best league in the country. Obviously, when she got hurt in the first half of the Alabama game in the WNIT, that really hurt us. I feel like if she doesn’t get hurt that’s a totally different game.”

Joseph believes her recovery period may actually have been something of a blessing in disguise.

“I think her body needed the rest and mentally she’s come back really, really strong,” Joseph said. “She’s very steady but the most important thing about Kierra is she’s just tough. She’s our leading returning rebounder, as a point guard. That tells you something. A point guard that can average 5.0 rebounds a game, those are hard to find. I think that’s the thing that’s really impressive about her.”

Impressive also describes Cubaj. The 6-4 forward made tremendous improvement over the course of the year and nearly earned a triple-double in Tech’s first-round WNIT game. She further improved over the summer and is looking to build off an impressive performance with Italy in the U20 World Championships.

“Lorela had a great summer,” said Joseph. “She averaged a double-double on the U20 National Team at the World Championships. Her confidence just grew. She played against some of the best players in the world and had a lot of success. I’m expecting her to have a breakout season. I think her size and her speed is unique and her ability to rebound and score the basketball, obviously, we’re going to be counting on her. She’s our only post player with any big game experience. She’s going to have to really step up and kind of lead the way for the younger players.”

Those young players certainly won’t need to be led to the gym. The six incoming freshmen, guards Elizabeth Balogun, Jasmine Carson, Kondalia Montgomery, and Lotta-Maj Lahtinen, and forwards Liz Dixon and D’asia Gregg, which comprised the seventh-ranked class in the nation, are versatile, athletic, and, most impressive to Joseph, self-starters.

“The great thing about the freshmen is I’ve never had to coach effort with them,” she said. “Their work ethic has been relentless from day one. They’re gym rats. They bought into our culture right away and really have developed a great chemistry with the upperclassmen.”

Tech’s three upperclassmen, forward Martine Fortune, the team’s only senior, and junior guards Pan and Chanin Scott have taken the lead, setting the tone and showing the youngsters the ropes.

“Our upperclassmen have accepted them with open arms,” Joseph said. “They understand we need them to help us get to where we want to go and they’ve really brought them in and accepted them and made it easy for the freshmen.

“I’ve been really impressed with the play of our returners and the leadership they’ve shown,” she added. “Francesca Pan has handled becoming the veteran of the team exceptionally well. I’ve been very impressed with Martine Fortune, who’s our only senior, who’s really never played a lot of minutes for us. I’m just really impressed with the way she handled herself — on the court and off the court — her leadership. Our freshmen have been very impressive early on. We have freshmen that don’t really play like freshmen and so that’s been a good sign for us.”

Another good sign is the depth. That’s bolstered by forwards Daijah Jefferson and Anne Diouf, both of whom redshirted last year.

“I think the difference-maker on this team is with depth,” Joseph. “I thought last year if Daijah Jefferson wouldn’t have gotten hurt, she could have been the difference in us making the NCAA Tournament because of her three-point shooting and her ability to play all five positions on the floor. She’s a 6-3 guard that is long and would have given us a lot of depth where we didn’t have it, as far as having an extra three-point shooter last year. She looks really strong going into this season. I think that she is a huge factor. If Chanin, Daijah and Anne can accept their roles and play at the level we think they’re capable of, we can have a really special season.”

Joseph believes this team can exceed expectations and she can’t wait for their first public showing, “Live at the Thrillerdome” on Oct. 19 at McCamish Pavilion. The first exhibition game is Nov. 4 against Coastal Georgia.

If the recent ACC Women’s Basketball Tip-Off is any indication, the Jackets may not be the surprise in the ACC that most teams with six true freshmen and one senior are.

“One of the things that seemed to be talked about the most there was, I really thought we would be able to sneak up on some people and surprise them with such a young team,” Joseph said. “It will be interesting to see how that comes out in the preseason polls.”

Joseph is even more intrigued about where the Jackets will be in the 2019 portion of the schedule.

“I’m really excited about this team and the potential this team has,” she said. “There’s no doubt that we’ll be playing our best basketball in February. The challenge for us is to get there in January. If we can get there in January, we can have a really special year.”

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