#TGW: Just Play

Just Play
Elo Edeferioka took off in 2016-17 once she freed herself
By Jon Cooper
The Good Word

Being a student at Georgia Tech encourages one to think and sometimes examine deeper into one’s self.

But for a student-athlete, introspection can go TOO deep. Sometimes you just have to derail that train of thought and just run on instinct.

Elo Edeferioka did just that. She turned her 2016-17 season around and helped fuel Georgia Tech’s postseason run and the promise of big things for 2017-18.

“At the start of the season I was making too many excuses why this wasn’t going well. It was in my head that I’d been out for a whole season, it was a new team. I felt like I had to do a lot because people expected me to do a lot on the floor so that was kind of putting pressure on myself,” she recalled. “At the end of the season I was not thinking about anything but just have fun. It was like I just set myself free to just play basketball. Once I figured out that my game started coming back to me.”

Her renaissance began on Feb. 16, at North Carolina, when she went 4-for-5, with 11 rebounds, six on the offensive end. Three days later she snapped a streak of 13 single-digit-scoring games, putting in 11 points in a 71-57 win over Pittsburgh. She also started to get to the foul line, getting there five times, the most in 15 games (she went 3-for-5). The roll continued in the next game against Clemson, when she was 7-for-7 from the stripe. The 12 FTAs in those two games were two fewer than in the previous nine games.

Edeferioka’s re-discovering her game had a ripple effect on the entire team, especially frontcourt mate Zaire O’Neil.

“I thought the better Elo got the better Zaire got because people had to respect Elo’s game,” said head coach MaChelle Joseph. “She developed a face-up game from 15-to-17 feet and that really opened the floor up for Zaire. I think they kind of are a great combination.”

Edeferioka and O’Neil pushed each other all year long, realizing how much they needed each other and, in turn, how much the team needed her.

“I always told her how bad we needed her on the floor,” Edeferioka said. “In order for me to play well I needed Zaire on the floor. At the end of the season we really bonded. We had the same goal, which was to win. So at the end of the season, having Zaire around me gave me confidence.”

Elo worked to craft a midrange game, something new for her, but which added another element to the team.

“I’d never been in that position until I got to Georgia Tech,” she said. “I was like, ‘Okay, what do I have to different?’ Because every time I’m with Zaire on the court, she had to be in the paint and I had to be on the perimeter, basically. I thought, ‘Okay, I have to work on my mid-range, so when they try to guard me Zaire is going to be one-on-one and when they try to double-team Zaire I can take the shot.’ Every time I was doing my personal workout with my post coach I worked on my midrange.”

That work paid off. The duo worked in concert beautifully in the WNIT, playing better as the stakes grew higher. Edeferioka recorded double-doubles in each of the final three games, averaging 12.7 points and 14.7 rebounds — pulling in 33 over the final two games. O’Neil raised her point totals in each of the last four games (14, 15, 20, 21), and field goals made in each of the last three (6, 6, 7, 8).  

In addition to her work adapting, Edeferioka credits Joseph for believing in her.

“I told Coach Jo during the start of the season, ‘I know I’m going to make mistakes. I know you’re going to be frustrated with me. Sometimes I just need you to leave me on the floor to play through my mistakes,’” she recalled. “That was basically what she did. Coach Jo and I were on the same page at the end of the season. I listened to her and she trusted me so much. Even when I had two fouls I’d be like, ‘Coach I can play with two. Put me back in.’ She would always put me back in. I was just so free and confident that my coach had a lot of trust in me.”

That trust has manifested into high expectations for next season, when the Jackets return five seniors and all five starters. Joseph will count on Edeferioka to lead as much in the locker room as on the floor.

“Her maturity level is unbelievable and her ability to motivate, confront and lead her teammates is admirable,” she said. “In my career I don’t know that I’ve seen a player that commands that kind of respect. She gives it, too. The thing about her is she’s a selfless kid. She plays for her team. It’s made a huge difference and it’s taken some of the pressure off Antonia and Zaire as far as them having to do everything leadership wise.”

Edeferioka averaged 6.6 points and 6.0 rebounds in 21.9 minutes in her first season with Georgia Tech and went for 9.5 points and 9.7 rebounds in 32.0 minutes in the WNIT (her previous best season was her sophomore year at Hofstra, when she averaged 9.2 points and 8.7 rebounds in 25.6 minutes). She’ll carry extra incentive because of the way the season ended — including uncharacteristically missing two free throws at the end of regulation that would have given the Jackets the lead.

“We wanted the championship and the end result was to get the ring. That did not happen,” she said. “But at the end of the day we are champions. As a team we learned how to play together and how to be family and we improved our chemistry on the court. This season was a success for us.

“We never give up. We have a coach that is so determined. She never gives up,” she added. “We went through some challenges. I believe we can get to wherever we want to be.”

Edeferioka is determined to make the most of having one more season and plans to be at the forefront of the Yellow Jackets’ charge in ‘17-18.

“The good thing is that I have another chance,” she said. “We’re going to do it right this time.”

In addition to getting back to work a positive step forward will come during the summer, when the team travels to Italy.

Edeferioka, who is weighing her options as far as playing with the Nigerian National Team — she doesn’t want anything to interfere with her classes — can’t wait to make her first trip there.

“We’re looking forward to the trip this summer,” she said. “We went to the Bahamas a couple of months ago and it was fun getting to do fun stuff with my teammates. We bonded doing that. I feel like this summer is going to be the same opportunity to bond as a team and get to know our freshman class coming in and have some good times over there sightseeing. It’s going to be great for Antonia (Peresson) and Francesca Pan for them being in their country and taking us around.”

Italy will be the next cool trip for Edeferioka and the team. She hopes it’s not the last. She’d like to make one with the team to Columbus, Ohio, in late March to the Final Four.

Elo feels the team is well-equipped to make such a run.

“The team we finished with this season, coming back together next season is going to be really tough for other teams to handle,” she said. “We gained more confidence and more chemistry and we played so well together the last couple of games. I so much believe that we’re going to get to our goal next year. No doubt.”

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