It’s not often that you find such joy in November, but there was little doubt Thursday night that Georgia Tech floated, and the Yellow Jackets proved it when they held MaChelle Joseph aloft – literally – after a 68-55 win over Purdue.
All these years later, Tech’s head coach remains the all-time leading scorer among lady Boilermakers, so renowned that Purdue honored her before the game in McCamish Pavilion by giving her a gift.
Then, her team defeated her alma mater on a night of inverse formulas, and players lifted her to shoulder height on the court after the Jackets (7-1) pushed Joseph’s record against the Boilermakers (5-3) to 1-2.
Obviously happy but not over the top, this was as close as the coach would come to separating Thursday’s win from others:
“The thing I told them is I’ve won a lot of games with Purdue, but I’ve never beaten Purdue,” Joseph said. “This is a chance to make history. That’s something my seniors said they wanted to do with the season started.”
This team might make more history, and do it with depth.
They’re versatile. They’re at times fast. They’re at times big. They have shooters. They have pounders. And they can, with one exception to date, get after it on defense.
Purdue is accustomed to bombing away. The Boilermakers made a whopping 42.1 percent of their 3-pointers in their first seven games, averaging 5.7 makes on 13.6 attempts per game.
Tech would have almost none of that.
Purdue got off three treys in each half, making one in each half.
There were Jackets in the faces of Boilermakers like bees on nectar. Tech’s man-to-man defense dialed in as the home team built a 33-20 halftime lead.
Purdue made just 32.1 percent of its shots in the first two quarters, and Tech put up 21 points in the second quarter when senior Zaire O’Neil came off the bench and scored eight points.
That was nothing new, something that is likely to be seen many more times.
The Jackets have such depth this season that Joseph is bringing three grizzled veterans – O’Neil, and guards Imani Tilford and Antonia Peresson – off the bench.
They entered the season with 152 combined career starts.
And they’re subs now.
There’s quite a plan unfolding here. Sophomore guard Francessa Pan led the Jackets with 15 points Thursday, O’Neil added 12 and junior Kaylan Pugh pitched in 11 – also off the bench.
Tech’s reserves scored 36 points, the starters 32.
Tilford, all 5-feet-5 inches of her, was the Jackets’ leading rebounder, and paced the Jackets with six assists. Off the bench.
Here’s the over-riding example of inverse formulas at play.
“It’s been great that they’ve been really unselfish and understand that players are going to have good nights and bad nights,” Joseph said. “It really doesn’t matter to this team. They just want to win.
“Chubbs [Tilford] did a good job. She’s our smallest player, and she was our leading rebounder . . . She’s six assists, zero turnovers. How many people get that from their backup point guard in a game where they press the entire second half? Having not just depth, but experienced depth is a key.”
Yeah, savvy helps.
Purdue head coach Sharon Versyp, who preceded Joseph as a player in West Lafayette, Ind., made some changes at halftime.
Coach Jo was ready.
As a student-athlete, Joseph led the Boilermakers to their first NCAA Tournament in 1989 and their first Big 10 title in 1991. Then, she helped head coach Lin Dunn to three NCAA Tournament runs from 1993-96 as a young assistant coach.
So, she’s seen a few things.
The Boilermakers went small in the second half and started attacking the basket. And they pressed.
They hit six of their first eight shots in the third quarter, when Tech missed 6-of-7, and the Boilermakers pulled to within 38-35 on a jump shot by sophomore guard Dominique Oden of Atlanta’s Marist School with 3:42 left in the period.
Joseph did some coaching, and the Jackets did some adjusting.
They went zone in the fourth quarter, and pulled away with a 20-point period as Pugh led the way.
It started with defense, specifically a scheme Tech barely practiced, and with Tilford – the team’s best ball-handler — spotting freshman point guard Kierra Fletcher and Pugh fronting the defense.
“I thought when we went with the triangle-and-two it really affected them when they went with their athletes and tried to drive the ball at us when we were fouling them,” Joseph said. “I said, ‘I’ve got to get KP in there.’ She’s one of my toughest players; she’ll fight back.
“We put [the defense] in before we went to the Bahamas and we only played it one possession before this so it was one of those things I knew long term we’re going to need it.”
The Jackets’ versatility is hard to miss, not in the least because they’re hard for opponents to scout and plan for.
“Chubbs, a lot of people when they scout her when she starts, they back off her and double-team her and we’re not able to run our offense,” Joseph said. “But I thought she did a really good job of coming off the bench.
“You can’t talk about seven or eight people when you look at a scouting report. You’ve got to focus on the first five. She can really get to the rim, and it didn’t seem like anyone was playing scouting report defense on her.”