By Matt Winkeljohn
The Good Word
To say that MaChelle Joseph and the Georgia Tech women’s basketball team are pumped may be understatement, but there’s no question they’ve earned joy heading into Thursday’s WNIT home game against Middle Tennessee State.
The Yellow Jackets (19-14) have won five of their past seven games, beating Jacksonville soundly in the first round of the WNIT, 71-55, and then grinding out a 63-51 win over UCF Sunday to stay at home again.
Should the squad beat the Blue Raiders (23-10) for the second time this season – the Jackets won 61-60 in Murfreesboro on Dec. 22 – Tech might score a fourth postseason game in McCamish Pavilion because the WNIT awards home games based on attendance.
“I never would have imagined we would have had the opportunity to host this next round, so obviously I’m real excited for this team . . . to play a Round of 16 game at home and have a chance to get to the Quarterfinals in the WNIT is really exciting,” said Joseph, the often-pumped Tech head coach.
“We’re learning how to play in the postseason. With everybody returning next season except for two players, I think it’s really important.”
The Jackets’ growing moxie showed up last Sunday against the Knights (21-12).
UCF has a fabulous backcourt with guards Aliyah Gregory, who was first-team All-American Athletic Conference upon averaging 16.6 points per game, 19.9 in conference play, and Zykira Lewis, who averaged 15.9 and made more 3-pointers in her career than any UCF player, male or female, with 271.
In a pair of conference games against No. 1 Connecticut, the defending national champion, they averaged 15.5 and 18.5 points, respectively.
Sure enough, Gregory and Lewis scored UCF’s first 11 points Sunday, and 21 of the Knights’ first 27.
Tech led 31-30 at halftime, though, thanks greatly to freshman Francesca Pan, who scored 13 of her 21 points before intermission while blocking two shots and registering two of the Jackets’ six first-half steals.
Tied at 42 after three quarters, the Jackets trailed a couple times in the fourth, lastly when Lewis made a layup with 4:38 left to give the visitors a 49-47 edge.
From there, Tech put on the clamps, and outscored the Knights 16-2 in perhaps the best stretch of basketball the Jackets have played in months.
Sophomore guard Kaylan Pugh started the push with yet another power drive, which sent her to the free throw line for a pair. She made both, with 4:10 to go, to tie the game. Moments later, Zaire O’Neal drew an offensive foul off the ball at the other end, giving the ball back to Tech.
That was a gutsy play.
O’Neal was playing with four fouls, and center Elo Edeferioka had fouled out.
“I was pleased to see the fight we showed when they came back and took the lead in the fourth quarter,” Joseph said. “We had to fight back and make plays. We were in serious foul trouble Elo fouling out and Zaire having four fouls, but I thought we showed a lot of fight and grit and toughness at the end of the game.”
Pugh made a free throw at the 2:39 mark for a one-point lead, and then came the first bomb.
Soon after the ball went inside to O’Neal she fired it back outside to junior guard Antonia Peresson, who’d replaced Imani Tilford at point guard.
Swish! A 3-pointer from the high left elbow – eight seconds after she’d missed a pair of free throws — gave the Jackets a 53-49 lead with 2:15 remaining.
Gregory sank a couple free throws at 1:44, but Peresson again hit from long range 14 seconds later for an edge that held.
“Everybody had been leaving [Tilford] the whole game because they don’t worry about her hitting 3’s so when we moved Antonia to the point, they lost sight of her because they were used to [Tilford] being in that spot,” Joseph said. “We were able to get the ball inside, and Zaire made some good passes.
“I felt like after [Peresson] missed those two free throws, she was going to knock down a shot because I knew that she was disappointed. Those two 3’s were huge.”
There’s something about these Jackets, a growing movement that offers plenty of reason to be optimistic about next season.
Pugh is fearless off the bench, and constantly in motion.
The 5-foot-9 transfer from Ohio State is Tasmanian Devil-like, as evidenced by her second double-double in half a season. She scored 13 points and grabbed a game-high 10 rebounds in 24 minutes.
Pan played like the ACC Rookie of the Year that she was recently named, abutting her game-high 21 points with seven rebounds, three assists, three steals and two blocked shots. The young Italian hit 4-of-7 3-pointers.
Peresson, a slightly older Italian, hit 3-of-6 from beyond the arc, and Tilford scored 11 points with six assists and four steals.
She was chief in helping harass Gregory and Lewis. They finished with 16 and 17 points, respectively, but Gregory took 14 shots and Lewis 19. The most prolific 3-point shooter in UCF history – men or women – hit just 1-of-9.
Combined, they were 13-of-33 from the field.
“We were actually playing a triangle-and-two, chasing their two scorers,” Joseph said. “Their two guards, we knew they had taken over 500 shots and everyone else was under 150. We went away from it for a while, went zone, went man.
“We mixed up our defenses quite a bit there in the second half, but I thought the last couple minutes of the game we were going triangle-and-two on a make and man on a miss. I thought that really threw them off balance.”
The Jackets have been zig-zagged by nagging injuries this season, and four of their top eight scorers are new to the ACC either as freshmen or transfers. But they’re figuring it out. Joseph said her team was knocked loopy by a lopsided home loss in December to Michigan, and took a while to recover.
“We’ve been talking about learning how to get over the hump, learning how to win rather than playing not to lose,” she said. “Once you learn how to win, it continues to manifest itself. You can look at our men’s basketball team . . . We’re really starting to find ourselves and understand our roles.
“The fact that we’re going on a foreign tour this fall and they’re all getting this much playing time and they’re basically all returning, we’ll have high expectations. But we want to finish this year out strong and get as much postseason experience as we can. I’m encouraging everybody to come out. We need as much support as we can get.”