Freshman guard Francesca Pan’s hot-hand, toughness lead Jackets into ACC Tournament
By Jon Cooper
The Good Word
Fair or not, European basketball players coming to the United States have to overcome the reputation for lacking toughness.
Francesca Pan knew of that and knew that even with her experience for the Italian U-20 National Team and credentials, a No. 3 ranking for international recruits by Prospects Nation, she’d have to get tough and earn her credibility.
“I knew that the ACC was tough but not like this. I had some difficulties,” said the 6-1 guard from Bassano del Grappa, Italy. “I had a period where I was a little bit upset because I didn’t know how to do things because it’s completely different from the championship that I did in Italy. But when I got used to it I had fun playing here. I like it.
“Here in America it’s a physical game, physical play, more than in Italy. So I had to work on it,” she added. “It’s always hard because they push, they are tough, they are strong, and athletic.”
She’s getting used to being successful, as well.
Pan won five ACC Rookie of the Week Awards, tying her with Ty Marshall for second-most by a Yellow Jacket, only Niesha Butler, who won the award seven times during the 1998-99 season, has more, and earned a berth on the ACC All-Freshman Team — the 11th Yellow Jacket to earn the honor and seventh in the MaChelle Joseph Era. Today she was named ACC Freshman of the Year by the Blue Ribbon Panel – only the second player in program history to earn the award.
“Francesca was ranked one of the top five Europeans coming out and she’s lived up to that,” said Joseph. “The thing we’ve known all along is that Francesca is a tremendous talent. She’s a versatile player that can play multiple positions. Her experience level is beyond her years because of the international experience that she has playing at such a high level. But the thing that’s impressed me the most is the numbers she’s put up against the Dukes and the Notre Dames and some of the top teams in the league. I think the future is very, very bright for her.”
Pan leads all ACC first-year players in scoring (11.0 ppg, 11.3 in ACC play), while shooting 37.0, 32.2, from three (38.2, 29.8 in conference play), and hitting 48 three-point field goals, including a team-high 25 in conference play. She’s also hit the boards, leading all Tech guards with 3.6 rebounds (3.6 in ACC play), and has been solid on defense, ranking second on the team with 31 steals (20 in ACC competition). She’s also been durable, playing in 28 of 29 games, starting 27 times — the only one she missed was the final non-conference game against Princeton, when she was held out as a precaution.
But Pan is more concerned with winning games than winning trophies. Earning those five rookies of the week was nice but she was anything but satisfied. If anything, her appetite for success became even more voracious.
“Every time they gave me the award it pushed me more to get better,” she said. “When they gave me these awards I was happy but that didn’t stop me, ‘Oh, I got this award, I don’t have to do anything because this week I was good.’ It pushed me to get better every day.”
Pan has gotten hotter as the season has gone along and is carrying the hot hand into her first ACCs. She’s scored in double figures in each of the last five games (19.0 ppg), and led the Jackets in scoring in four of those five with has three of her five 20-point games on the season in that stretch.
It’s a hot-hand that can make the Jackets very dangerous.
“There’s no doubt about it,” said Joseph, whose teams have won six of their last seven ACC Tournament debuts and are 9-4 in their first ACC Tournament game (the Jackets are 6-6 all-time in first-round games, 5-4 under Joseph). “She’s a special player and she’s got a tremendous amount of confidence. I think that her experience level and when she’s playing well her confidence level rubs off on everyone around her.”
Pan’s confidence is growing every game regardless of what kind of defense opponents are throwing at her…and there has been plenty of those. But it’s nothing she hasn’t seen before.
“It’s happened during the youth championships. The other team organized the defense, like the Box-and-One,” she said. “I was used to having a person faceguard me but this person wasn’t like here in America, tough, strong, stuff like that.
“It’s always hard to play against these defenses because all the attention is on you,” she added. “Now that they know that I can score maybe they will faceguard me or stuff like that. It will be hard but (the defensive attention) makes me happy because that means I did good things during the year.”
She’s confident that she can do more good things, like on Feb. 12, at Tournament top seed Notre Dame, when she went off for her ACC-high 24 on 10-for-13 shooting, 4-for-8 from three. The performance was one point off her season high set at the Junkanoo Jam during Thanksgiving, a tournament in which Pan earned MVP honors.
“I feel like I’m getting used to how they play here,” she said. “I tried to change the way I play because the way I played before wasn’t enough. I had to be stronger, tougher.
“Every day Coach Jo pushed me to work hard and work harder than I’ve worked,” she added. “She tried to tell me to give all I have during practice and during the game because she told me that she believed in me. She pushed me every day to do the best that I can. Now, I can see the results.”
Pan believes that the Jackets are due to see some good results after a season that saw them endure several hard-luck losses — Tech went 2-4 in one-possession games.
“We were unlucky this season. We lost a lot of games at the end,” Pan said. “I think because of that we are prepared. We know what we have to do when we are in that situation. We can’t wait to go to the ACC Tournament to show who we really are because I think we are a very good team and everybody’s scared about us.”