Oct. 28, 2003
Four returning starters. Twelve returning letterwinners. Three- quarters of the scoring and rebounding load back. A new coach, but not a new face. The most successful season in program history. With all those pieces returning to the hardwood in 2004, it’s no secret why the mantra for this season is:
Putting it all together.
In 2003, the Georgia Tech women’s basketball team experienced its most successful season to date. Only a few of those pieces have been lost; and the familiarity and continuity of the team was enhanced when two-year assistant coach MaChelle Joseph took the reins as the program’s fifth head coach in May.
The task of taking all of the outstanding pieces that are already in place for the Yellow Jackets entering the year will fall to Joseph and her new coaching staff of Stephanie McCormick, Art PreVost and Brenda Mock Kirkpatrick. McCormick joined the staff after a pair of successful seasons at Charlotte and Prevost most recently served as the top assistant with Akron’s women’s basketball team. Kirkpatrick returns for her second year on the coaching staff.
“I’ve never been more proud of a team that I’ve worked with than I was with our team last year,” said Joseph. “The fact that we opened the ACC season 0-5 and then responded by winning eight of 11 games to finish and make the NCAA Tournament. We had our backs against the wall and it not only showed the character and determination of this team, but it showed the chemistry that we had. The thing that stands out for me from last year was the chemistry that this team showed on the court and how they interacted off the court. That was the difference in helping us get over the hump and reach the NCAA Tournament.”
Tech’s successes of 2003 included the program’s first NCAA Tournament berth in 10 years and the best record in school history at 20-11. The Jackets also matched the program’s most wins in ACC play with eight after opening the year with an 11-1 mark in non-conference action. With so many parts of that success returning, Georgia Tech will look to build on last year and put it all together for another NCAA run in 2004. In anticipation of that, the Yellow Jackets have already been placed among womenscollegehoops.com’s “Preseason Top 50” teams for the upcoming season.
“There is no doubt that Agnus Berenato left the cupboard full when she left,” said Joseph. “She gave me a great opportunity to step into a program that is on the verge of greatness. Now, looking at it, everyone was looking around at the NCAA Tournament and saying, ‘wow this is what it’s really like.’ I know that now they won’t accept anything less, because once you get a taste of it, you know what it takes to get there.”
Leading the way for the Yellow Jackets will be a corps of returning starters, headed by senior All-America candidate Fallon Stokes. Stokes is the team’s leading returning scorer and rebounder after averaging 15.7 points and 6.5 rebounds a year ago en route to garnering third-team All-ACC honors. After playing in a reserve roll for much of her first year and a half on the Flats, Stokes emerged in 2003 as one of the Jackets’ and the ACC’s top scoring threats, averaging 20 points and 7.3 rebounds over the final seven games of the year. She will be the second-leading returning scorer in the ACC in 2004, trailing only Alana Beard of Duke. Following her success late in the 2003 campaign, Stokes will be looked to as one of the leaders for Tech this year, along with being one of the team’s go to players and top scoring options.
“Fallon Stokes, in my opinion, is one of the top-three players in the ACC,” said Joseph. “She came into her own at the end of last season and she became very hard to defend. The fact that she can play inside and outside, along with being a tremendous rebounder and scorer is what allowed her to find ways to score against any defense. I thought that last year in the NCAA Tournament she played fearlessly and became very consistent at the end of the year and stepped up. She finally turned the corner of going from a very good player to a great player and I’d like to see her become an elite player this year. Fallon has the ability to lead the league in scoring and in rebounding, but it’s just a matter of her being consistent every day in her preparation.”
Joining Stokes in the starting lineup from a year ago will be senior point guard Alex Stewart. After entering the 2003 season as the team’s third point guard, Stewart was forced into action following injuries to both Nina B?rlin and Mallorie Winn early in the year. With her new role as the team’s on-court leader, Stewart flourished, leading the team and the ACC with 5.55 assists per game, for a total of 172 on the year. An outstanding free throw shooter, she also led the league in free throw percentage at .851, as she earned third-team All-ACC honors for the first time in her career. Stewart netted 8.6 points per contest and was one of the league’s top rebounding guards, pulling down an average of 5.6 boards per game. In 2004, she will lead a deep group of guards for the Jackets, which includes three players that can run the point.
“I’ve never had more respect for a player in all of my coaching or playing experiences,” said Joseph. “We told Alex that she was our third point guard to start the season as she was behind Nina (B?rlin) and Mallorie (Winn) and her minutes would be anywhere from zero to five. Then we had two injuries to start the year with those two players. Alex kind of went in and became the heart and soul of our team. She led us in every way, on and off the court and every day in practice. The enthusiasm that she shows in a game, she has every day in practice. There is no doubt about it, down the stretch last year, she put us on her back and carried us at times.”
The third returner to the starting five and part of Tech’s three-guard lineup that was featured at the end of last season is senior Megan Isom. An intelligent player, Isom became the Yellow Jackets defensive stopper a year ago, along with emerging as one of the ACC’s top three-point shooters on the offensive end of the floor. She is Georgia Tech’s second-leading returning scorer in 2004, after netting 9.8 points per game in 2003, to go along with 4.2 rebounds and a team-best 2.1 steals per contest. Another member of Tech’s talented group of back court players, Isom will be looked to contribute even more on the offensive end this year and be the catalyst of the Jackets’ defensive efforts.
“Megan is one of the best three-point shooters in the league and is a threat to knock down five in a row at any time,” said Joseph. “The other thing that she brings to the table is that she is a great defensive player. She’s very deceptive, because she doesn’t look very quick, but she understands angles and has tremendous knowledge of the game. She is almost like a coach on the floor, because she understands everybody’s position and where they are supposed to be on every single play and she’s really the brains behind our operation.”
The final returnee to the starting lineup will be sophomore Megan Harpring, whose entrance into a starting role was a key part of Georgia Tech’s late-season run toward the NCAA Tournament. Harpring started the final seven games of the year and averaged 9.1 points and 5.3 rebounds in those contests, while scoring a season-high 16 points in the Jackets’ key road victory at NC State in February. An intense competitor, she was one of five players to see action in every game a year ago, scoring 4.2 points and grabbing 2.2 rebounds per game on the year. On Feb. 24, Harpring became the first Tech player to be named the ACC Rookie of the Week since 1999 after helping lead the Yellow Jackets to wins over both Florida State and Clemson
“I don’t think you can look at the stat sheet and see the impact that Megan had on our team last year,” said Joseph. “The thing about her is her toughness and her work ethic. Megan will not be denied and she forced us to start her and play her. She is the hardest worker every day and will not be out-worked. She brings such a competitive spirit to the table. As the season went on, she really came into her own and I have high expectations for Megan and what she can bring to this team.”
Tech will welcome back the services of senior guard Nina B?rlin, who missed all but one minute of the 2003 season. B?rlin re-injured the knee that caused her to miss the final 12 games of 2002 during the 2003 season-opening game against Charlotte. She was one of the top point guards in the ACC as a junior, earning honorable mention All-ACC honors after averaging 7.9 assists per game, the most by a Yellow Jacket since 1995 and an average that would have ranked first in the ACC and second in the nation.
“I’m very excited to have Nina back in the mix this year,” said Joseph. “She is definitely a great leader and is one of the best passing point guards in the conference. That’s obvious by the last time she played. Nina has great basketball knowledge. She is an offensive weapon, because she can score in a lot of different ways. Some people say they have a quarterback controversy; we maybe have a point guard controversy. I don’t think that’s a negative thing, because she and Alex complement each other so well. Alex’s strengths are Nina’s weaknesses and vice-versa. I think the competition will bring out the best in both of them.”
Seven members of Tech’s 2003 rookie class will be back in uniform this season. Included in that group will be sophomore Kasha Terry, who was an honorable mention ACC All-Rookie pick a year ago after starting 19 games and ranking second on the team and third in the conference with 40 blocked shots as a freshman. For the year, she netted 4.7 points and grabbed 4.8 rebounds per contest, while battling injuries throughout the season. With the departure of first-team All-ACC selection Sonja Mallory, Terry will help lead a young group of post players for the Yellow Jackets in 2004.
Joining Terry in the frontcourt will be fellow sophomore Jessica Williams, who started three games a year ago, while appearing in 30 contests in total. Williams, top game came in a 10-point outing off the bench against Georgia to help key Tech to its first-ever win over the Bulldogs. Steadily improving throughout the year, she averaged 2.6 points and 2.2 rebounds per game and will certainly be looked to for even greater production in the paint this year.
The third second-year performer that will likely see more playing time in the paint this year will be Ashley Guerrant. At 6-3, Guerrant is the most prototypical center of the group and has experience after playing in 24 games as a rookie, starting two of those contests. Like the rest of the Jackets’ post players, she can step away from the basket and take an outside jumpshot, giving Tech another versatile performer on the inside.
“Fortunately for us, we have a lot of versatility in this group,” said Joseph. “They are young, but Kasha Terry started a majority of the year and Jessica and Ashley both had an opportunity to start at different times. All three got a lot of valuable playing experience as freshmen. Kasha Terry is an elite player and the added time in the weight room and her added strength are going to make a huge difference for her. Her ability to post up and run the floor with anybody will set her apart. Jessica Williams has gotten herself in shape and she’s learned our system. I think you will see the biggest difference in her game of the three.”
While Terry, Williams and Guerrant will be the mainstays in the paint this year, returning guard Mallorie Winn will once again bolster the Yellow Jackets’ backcourt. After missing the middle part of the 2003 season with a foot injury, Winn returned to score 21 points on the road against North Carolina in February and recorded four more double-digit scoring games down the stretch for Tech. An extremely versatile guard, she can run the point along with being one of the best three-point shooters on the team, finishing second on the squad in that category a year ago, with 19 treys in 17 games. Winn will also be a part of a deep and talented group of guards for the Jackets in 2004.
“Mallorie can be as good as she wants to be,” said Joseph. “Her growth and development as a player is up to her. I tell her that the sky is the limit for her. She has such tremendous natural athletic talent and has a great ability to score. She’s the best one-on-one player on our team outside of Fallon Stokes. She can put the ball on the floor and get to the rim better than anybody that we have. Mallorie is also a great three-point shooter. The best thing about her is her size at both the point and the two positions because she is 5-11 and can see over defenses and create passing angles. If she puts her mind to it, she can make a big difference for this team this year.”
Another returnee from the freshman class of 2003 will be forward April Johnson. After opening her rookie season in strong fashion with 14 points against Charlotte to begin the year, Johnson played in the next five games before suffering a torn anterior cruciate ligament at practice before the Jackets’ game at Central Florida. After being granted a medical hardship, she returns as a redshirt-freshman in 2004 and should give Tech immediate help on the wing as she brings the ability to play both inside and outside.
“Losing April was a devastating blow last year,” said Joseph. “We had high expectations for her entering her freshman year. She came in during the Kansas State game and made a huge difference. There is no doubt that had she not gotten hurt, she would have challenged somebody for a starting position. Fortunately, we were able to redshirt her and she is coming in this year as a freshman with a year of experience under her belt. Her rehab has gone really well and I see her making a huge impact for this team, because of her versatility.”
A trio of players who may not receive the accolades and playing time of some of the Yellow Jackets’ other veterans, but have been instrumental in Tech’s recent success, include senior captain Jasmina Pacariz, junior Maya Monroe and sophomore Cheytoria Phillips. While only seeing limited action a year ago, the group’s leadership both on and off the court, along with an ability to push the Jackets’ regulars every day in practice was key to preparing Tech for each of its games in 2003.
“We’re very fortunate to have role players that understand their role on this team,” said Joseph. “With Jasmina, Maya and Cheytoria, they may not get the credit sometimes that other players get on the stat sheet, but the difference that they make for us everyday in practice and with their leadership on and off the court is immeasureable. The thing about Cheytoria Phillips is that she was a walk-on last year and I felt like she was one of the hardest workers we had every day and we rewarded her with a scholarship this year. Jasmina has been named a captain and that signifies how important her role is on this team and how much her teammates look up to her and respect her.”
A pair of talented newcomers in freshmen Stephanie Higgs and Kentrina Wilson will complete the Yellow Jackets’ roster for the 2004 season. Both players should contribute immediately for Tech, with Higgs bolstering the Jackets’ already talented backcourt and Wilson providing even greater depth to the wing position.
Higgs, an outstanding scorer on the prep level, comes to the Flats after being named the Metro Player of the Year for 2003 by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, along with earning Class 5A first-team All-State accolades. A versatile guard, Higgs can play both the point and off-guard positions, proving depth at both for Tech. After averaging over 19 points per game in each of her last three years at Central Gwinnett High School, she finished her career with over 2,000 points. She should make an immediate impact for the Yellow Jackets on the perimeter in 2004.
Wilson also arrives at Tech following an outstanding high school career that was capped with a Florida 6A state title with Deerfield Beach High School in 2003. During that campaign, she also earned first-team Class 6A All-State honors and was a finalist for Florida Miss Basketball honors. Another versatile player, Wilson is an athletic forward that can play all positions from the two to four spot on the floor. In high school she made the transition to the wing and already possesses good size and strength. Wilson’s abilities will immediately benefit the Jackets’ new up-tempo style in 2004.
“Both Kentrina and Stephanie had tremendous experiences at a very high level,” said Joseph. “They are not just your ordinary high school players. Both of them played in the adidas All-America game and both have been to the adidas or the Nike camp and have always competed and played at a high level. I know that they’ve both won state titles in their careers. They are two very elite players that have unique experiences. They both bring exactly what fits our style of play. Kentrina is very versatile and is what I call a combo guard because she can play both inside and outside at the two, three or four. She is a great rebounder and has great sense for where the ball is coming off the rim. As for Stephanie, she will have a great opportunity to learn from some very good guards. She is going to have very tough competition, but can also help some of our upper classmen, as far as pushing them while competing for playing time.”
As always, Tech’s schedule will provide plenty of challenges, as the Yellow Jackets will face the always-difficult ACC slate, along with the yearly match-up with in-state rival Georgia, as part of the Russell Athletic Shootout at Philips Arena for the third-straight year. Georgia Tech will also travel to the Virgin Islands in November to compete in the Paradise Jam Tournament before traveling to Norfolk, Va., to face perennial national power Old Dominion in the non-conference portion of the schedule.
“We are fortunate because 13 of our 15 players were here for the entire summer,” said Joseph. “They were in the weight room, playing pickup games and doing individual workouts together, pushing each other every single day to get better. We’ve improved our physical strength since school ended in May. We had seven freshmen last year and they’ve made the biggest improvements as far as the weight room. I think that will contribute to their presence on the court. There is no doubt that our goal is to get back to the NCAA Tournament and not only get there, but we’d like to advance to the Sweet 16. Obviously we’d like to go further, but I think it’s important to take it step-by-step. We definitely want to finish in the top three of the ACC and challenge for an ACC Championship.”
With an experienced and talented group of returnees and the majority of the team’s scoring and rebounding returning from a year ago, the Yellow Jackets appear poised to put all of the pieces together and continue to build on the success of the 2003 campaign and make another run at the NCAA Tournament in 2004.