Inside the Chart | By: Andy Demetra
Francesca Pan poured in 1,638 points and finished second in Georgia Tech history in made three-pointers.
Yet when it came time for the Bassano del Grappa, Italy native to reflect on her career, particularly her senior season, Pan wanted to talk about anything but her scoring.
“I’m proud of my team, how we fought this whole season, how we adjusted to a new system really quickly,” said Pan.
The season – and Pan’s career – came to an abrupt end last month when the NCAA canceled all postseason tournaments due to the ongoing coronavirus crisis. It denied the Yellow Jackets (20-11, 10-8 ACC) a chance to reach the NCAA Tournament, an accomplishment that had eluded Pan during her four seasons on The Flats.
Yet even without a postseason, the Yellow Jackets defied expectations in 2019-20, going from a preseason 11th place pick in the ACC to an NCAA at-large contender. They racked up four wins over top-25 opponents and beat a top-10 team on the road for the first time in school history. They also earned their first-ever win in Athens, routing Georgia 73-40 at Stegeman Coliseum.
Head coach Nell Fortner knows none of those achievements would have been possible without her senior leader.
“[She] really was a catalyst to why we accomplished what we did this year. To have her experience, to have her knowledge of the game, and to have the respect of her teammates, it went a long, long way,” the Yellow Jackets’ first-year head coach said.
Not surprisingly, Fortner had one lament.
“I wish I could have coached her for at least one more year,” she said.
Pan showed a knack for scoring from her very first season on The Flats, when she arrived as the No. 3 international recruit in college basketball according to Prospects Nation. The 6’1” guard led all ACC freshmen in scoring (11.5 ppg) and won five Rookie of the Week awards en route to becoming the ACC’s Freshman of the Year in 2017.
Pan raised her scoring average to a career-best 14.3 points per game as a sophomore, then crossed the 1,000-point mark while averaging 12.0 points as a junior. She established herself as a fiery competitor and a finesse scorer, able to finish with touch around the rim or pull up for transition threes. Her outside shooting could unnerve defenses even on off nights.
Still, Pan felt one area of her game was lacking.
“I didn’t see leadership skills in myself. I was quiet. I really wasn’t sure how to behave as a leader,” she admitted.
That changed, she said, once she started working with Fortner.
“She always sees the positive even when players maybe can only see the negative. She always brings positive energy and a positive attitude. I use her as an example. She’s one of the best leaders I know. I love the way she leads everybody. I learned a lot from her,” Pan said of Fortner, who was hired in April of 2019.
Pan took her cues from her head coach, suppressing the irritation that she showed too easily earlier in her career. She tried to set a better example for her teammates, projecting calmness even during chaotic moments.
That leadership allowed other aspects of Pan’s game to grow. She said she became a much better defender as a senior. Fortner said she probably led the ACC in charges, using her instincts and toughness to become the rare guard who could protect the rim. She helped Tech rank fifth in the nation in scoring defense, allowing 52.5 points per game.
And how’s this for irony: Fortner said she was most impressed by Pan during a shooting slump.
“She had a point in time in the season where she struggled on the offensive end. In all my coaching career, what normally happens is a player will then struggle on the defensive end,” Fortner said.
“And that did not happen to Pan, ever. When she was struggling to shoot the ball, her defense just went to another level. First of all, that shows her tenacity for the game, her love of the game, and not wanting to let her teammates down.”
But Pan didn’t forget how to shoot (she still led Tech in scoring this year at 13.4 points per game). Never was that more evident than on February 16, when Georgia Tech upset No. 4 NC State 65-61 at a sold-out Reynolds Coliseum. Pan torched the Wolfpack for a career-high 30 points, with 22 coming in the second half.
“It was the loudest gym I’ve ever played in in my career,” she said. “We just played hard and played with our hearts and fought for all 40 minutes.”
“It was one of those must-win games if we were going the NCAA Tournament. And to see your senior just step up to the plate in that big of a way, I was so proud of her. And the best part was, everybody associated with our team was so happy and proud of her,” Fortner added.
That all-around season culminated in Pan earning second-team All-ACC honors, a first for her career. That joins the four All-ACC Academic Team awards that she’s already piled up at Tech.
“I take school very seriously. Studying and having good grades is as important to me as performing on the court,” said the business administration major (as if that needed clarification).
Pan finished her Tech career ranked sixth in school history in points and first in minutes played (3,945). She’s currently staying with teammate Kierra Fletcher at her home in Detroit while remotely finishing up her degree requirements. She plans on playing professionally, but is also intrigued by the idea of working as a director of operations for a basketball team. She did an independent study project this year on the complexities of the position, and she’s a self-admitted stickler for organization.
As for the way her Tech career ended, with the coronavirus robbing her of a potential chance to play in the NCAA Tournament, Pan chooses to focus on the positives. More than the wins or awards, it was the sisterhood that she’ll remember the most.
“We knew that everybody was there for each other. I will never forget this year, because it felt like I had 11 sisters,” she said.
Even in an incomplete year, Francesca Pan proved she could become a complete player.