What A Thrill!
Women’s Basketball had a great ride in 2016-17 and can’t wait for ‘17-18
By Jon Cooper
The Good Word
The fun of any thrill-ride is that you just don’t know what’s going to happen until it does.
While you’re sometimes a little bummed by it ending, the overall rush of the emotional highs is almost indescribable and you just want to do it all again.
That’s kind of what Georgia Tech women’s basketball coach MaChelle Joseph feels looking back on the 2016-17 season, one that saw the Yellow Jackets finish 22-15 (5-11 in ACC play), and nearly ride a wave of momentum and perfectly-timed team unity to a WNIT championship.
“I’m really proud of the progress we made throughout the course of the season,” said Joseph. “We lost a lot of close games with a young team — four of our top eight scorers and rebounders were new to the program — so I thought we were kind of on a journey all season long to figure out our roles and strengths and weakness of individuals and then as a team.”
The journey proved adventurous. So much so that at times, perhaps only those in the locker room and the most dedicated of fans would have dared to image the final destination for this team being Joseph’s ninth 20-win season (the 12th in program history) and her third in four years — the one year she DIDN’T get to 20, 2014-15, the Jackets had 19.
Face it, the season could have ended on Feb. 17.
The night before Georgia Tech suffered a crushing 89-88 loss to North Carolina at Carmichael Auditorium, when a half-court heave went in at the final buzzer. It was Tech’s eighth loss in nine games, of which three were by one point, three came in overtime and another was by six points.
That day, the players had a choice. They could meekly accept that “It’s just not our year” and play out the string or they could defiantly stand up, say “Enough!” and make the most of their final five games and see what fate awaited given a chance in postseason.
They chose the latter and it all began to add up and on the court it began to click.
The inside game of junior Zaire O’Neil and redshirt junior Elo Edeferioka set up the outside game led by ACC Freshman of the Year Francesca Pan and junior guard Antonia Peresson, giving options to gutsy, gritty junior point Imani Tilford. Hard-nosed Kaylan Pugh and energetic freshman Chanin Scott and versatile senior Katarina Vuckovic contributed off the bench. Suddenly they found their identity and started finding ways to win.
“I thought in postseason we did that,” said Joseph. “We made plays when we had to and you could just see the growth and the confidence of the players growing every day because of the success they were having in the WNIT.”
They won three of their final five ACC games — losing only to Miami, which made the NCAA Tournament — then, using their chemistry and confidence, plus the energy from McCamish Pavilion crowds beat Jacksonville, Central Florida, Alabama and Washington State to get to the WNIT Championship Game.
They nearly took that, too, as homestanding Michigan needed three overtimes to finally get an 89-79 win over a Tech team that saw O’Neil and Tilford foul out. It was a little different than the 40-point performance they put on Georgia Tech back on Dec. 1 at McCamish Pavilion.
The ending was bitter but offered promise down the road.
Looking ahead, Joseph expects next year’s team to more closely resemble the one that took the floor for the WNIT than the one that scrambled to find its identity.
It should as all but Vuckovic and graduate student Cha’Ron Sweeney, who excelled in the championship game, return.
It’s a group that has five seniors. Having that many seniors is a luxury Joseph hasn’t had since 2011-12, the greatest season in program history, when they set a program single-season record for wins (26), got to the ACC Championship Game and reached the Sweet 16 of the NCAA Tournament, losing to eventual champion Baylor and Brittney Griner — one of the seniors on that team was point guard and current assistant Metra Walthour.
Can next year’s team match that? Joseph can’t wait to see it try.
“I always say you’re only as good as your seniors,” she said. “To have a core group of seniors coming back that have played and started basically their entire careers together is exciting. The last time we had that we went to the Sweet 16 and played for an ACC Championship. It’s exciting for me to be back in that position. We also are bringing in a top-20 recruiting class. We really feel like some of the depth that we were lacking this year we’ll have in place next season.”
The core will still feature O’Neil, the leading scorer (12.7 ppg), and second-leading rebounder (5.6, one behind Edeferioka), who shot an eyelash below 50 percent, and Edeferioka, who came on as the season wound down and the Jackets’ play ramped up — she led the team in rebounds, grabbing a combined 33 in the WNIT semis (16) and final (17), and was the team’s best foul shooter at 71.4 percent. She’s also been one of the team’s locker room leaders since arriving prior to last season.
The duo presents a formidable presence in the paint.
“Any time Zaire was able to play more than 25, 30 minutes she was getting 20 points and 10 rebounds. It was just a matter of keeping her in the game long enough to do that,” Joseph said. ”I thought the better Elo got the better Zaire got because people had to respect Elo’s game. She developed a face-up game from 15-to-17 feet and that really opened the floor up for Zaire.”
They also opened the floor for Italy natives Pan and Peresson. Pan, the second-leading scorer, made at least two threes in every game of the WNIT and went for double-figures in nine of Tech’s final 11 games, while Peresson, who Joseph feels has the highest basketball IQ on the team, had a three-pointer in 25 of Tech’s last 30 games, with 17 multi-3PTFGM games.
“I think the sky’s the limit for Pan. She has the opportunity to be a pro, a WNBA player,” said Joseph. “The way she established herself in the ACC, that’s just going to pay dividends next year. I really think we’re going to get her in great shape, she’s going to play in the U-20 European Championships this summer in Portugal and that will give her even more experience with the top team in Italy.
“I think Antonia is a tremendous shooter,” she added. “We need her to become one of the best shooters in the ACC (she tied for 12th in three-point shooting) and we also need her to provide tremendous leadership on and off the floor. She’s the only player on our team that knows everybody’s position on the floor. So the players automatically have respect for her because of that.”
Respect is starting to come the Jackets way, as they’ve signed three from their top-20 recruiting class and have four commitments for 2018.
Joseph expects next year’s squad to come out with a chip on its shoulder and a voracious appetite to succeed within the ACC and nationally.
“I think we’re really going to be hungry. This just made us hungrier in realizing what we have to do to get to that point,” she said. “I think it’s going to give us a lot of confidence in knowing what we have to do but it’s made us hungry, obviously. We know where we want to be. It was great experience playing for the WNIT championship but we want to be in the NCAA Tournament and we want to play for an ACC championship.
“I think we have great chemistry but I told the players, ‘We’re only going to be a great team when it’s THEIR team,’” she added. ”They have to provide tremendous leadership on and off the floor and demand it of themselves, not that it’s coming from the coaches or me. It’s got to come from them to each other. I think we started to see that in the WNIT and that was exciting to see them develop that.”