March 1, 2009
By Jack Wilkinson
It may have snowed on her Senior Day, but Jacqua Williams wouldn’t let anything or anyone rain on her personal parade. Not the unexpected wintry weather. Not the 19th-ranked Virginia Cavaliers. Not even her January malaise that had temporarily cost Williams her starting job.
While the weather outside was frightful, inside it was so delightful for Williams. On Sunday, the quicksilver kid from Seattle had the kind of senior moment all college athletes dream of. In her Alexander Memorial Coliseum farewell, Williams bid the Thrillerdome and Virginia adieu while leading Georgia Tech to a 74-66 upset.
“Jacqua has changed our program,” said head coach MaChelle Joseph, whose Jackets (21-8, 8-6 ACC) have three straight 20-win seasons and secured the No. 5 seed in the ACC Tournament. On Thursday, Tech will meet 12th-seeded Clemson, whom the Jackets have beaten twice this year. The Tigers best beware the Jacqua-fueled defense that forced Virginia into a season-high 28 turnovers.
“One of the things she enabled us to do when she came in was to put in a defensive system that fit my style and personality,” Joseph said. “I love to coach a full-court game of trapping and pressing. Jacqua fit that, and we were able to build that around her. We were able to go out and get other athletes that played that way.
“A lot of players can change the game on the offensive end,” said the coach. “There are very few players who can take over and change it on the defensive end. That’s what Jacqua Williams can do; she can alter anybody’s offensive game.”
Williams made three of Tech’s 14 steals; that gives her 366 for her career, tops in Tech history and seventh all-time in the ACC. It was also a prime reason why the Jackets, despite shooting just 39.1 percent to UVa’s 50 per cent, were able to win. That, and Tech’s nine offensive rebounds and 20-for-24 shooting from the foul line.
“Jacqua’s been able to make us a full-court defensive team,” said Joseph. “We play differently than anybody else in the league; nobody else presses for 40 minutes. When Jacqua’s at the top of her game, she gives other players a great deal of confidence.”
“We feed off her energy,” said Iasia Hemingway, who had 17 points and was one of five Jackets in double figures. “It’s like, `We got your back.”
“She’s my leader,” sophomore Alex Montgomery said of Williams. “Where she goes, I go.”
For the final home game of the season, the Jackets wore throwback uniforms: replicas of the 1991-92 Tech team that won the WNIT championship that season. But then, Williams is something of a throwback herself, that rarity among major Division I athletes: a two-sport star, not just a clamp-down defensive stopper but a swift sprinter on the Tech track team.
Until a month ago, Williams was also a fixture in the starting lineup for two-and-a-half seasons. But after her poor performance (0-for-4 from the floor, three turnovers, one steal and an assist) in Tech’s hideous 60-34 loss at Duke, Williams was benched for sophomore Deja Foster.
Joseph was displeased with Williams’ play at the point; she started just two of the next nine games. But in last Thursday’s 73-68 overtime win at Virginia Tech, Williams scored five of her 19 points in OT. On Senior Day, she had a fine case of senioritis, hitting 6-of-11 from the floor, including two 3-pointers.
Both were big. The first, a high-arcing trey nearly five minutes into the second half — Williams doesn’t shoot jumpers from the 3-point line as much as push a high, one-handed parabola set shot — gave Tech a 46-42 cushion. The second, on a fine kick-out from Hemingway down low, gave the Jackets — who’d scored but one basket in the previous six minutes — breathing room at 67-56 with under four minutes to play.
Despite picking up her fourth personal with 12:22 still to play, Williams didn’t foul out. Didn’t let up defensively, either.
“We’re gonna miss her, but we’re not done,” Joseph said. “Today was a day to honor her, but not to say goodbye.”
At game’s end, after her coach addressed the crowd, after fellow senior and substitute Tabitha Turner thanked the fans, Williams took the microphone and expressed herself quite nicely. “I wanted to thank them for everything, all the support on the court,” she said. “And the support the last four years, when no one else was here.”
She particularly meant her own personal cheering section: Her mother, Joy Williams, who flew in from Seattle along with her godparents, Steve and Denise Greer. Her brother, Kenny, flew in from California, while other friends and relatives from Seattle made the trip, too. Williams made their cross-country sojourns worthwhile, almost as if it was pre-ordained.
Asked what losing on Senior Day might have been like, Williams quickly replied, “We weren’t going to. That didn’t enter our minds.” As for her own struggles at the point earlier this season, Williams characterized them merely — but maturely — as, “Different things, ups and downs. But I guess it doesn’t matter who starts; it’s who wins ballgames.
“You change lineups,” she said. But, “It doesn’t matter. Just win, just get to the NCAA’s.” Whatever the outcome of the ACC Tournament, Tech is surely a lock for an NCAA Tournament at-large bid.
“We knew what we were playing for: Seeding, a fifth-place finish, an over-.500 record in the ACC for only the second time in our program,” Joseph said. “But the most important thing we were playing for [was] our seniors.
“One of the important factors the NCAA [tournament selection] committee looks at is how you performed in your last 10 games,” she said. “ESPN called it ‘February Frenzy.’ Last year, we learned our lesson. We had a couple of late losses.”
That resulted in Tech being relegated to a first-round NCAA Tournament game — and defeat — in Iowa. A similar site, and outcome, aren’t likely this time around. Not after Tech opened the month with its own defensive brand of March madness, which should position the Jackets nicely for the post-season.
“We played extremely well down the stretch [scoring at least 73 points in the last three games — all wins — and winning five of its last seven],” Joseph said. “We beat a ranked team [Sunday]. We have significant wins. One of the things we talked about was getting a better [NCAA] seed.
“Our ultimate goal this year is to get to the Sweet 16 and beyond,” the coach said, “and if we wanted to accomplish that, we needed a better seed.”
Jacqua Williams said this: “I have to say every moment’s a good moment, when you’re around great people. I’m happy. I’m excited. The team is great, our chemistry is great. We have a strong bond.”
While the senior point guard allowed that “We persevered through a lot,” she knows, “Every memory here is a good memory. Every game, every practice. This [coming from Seattle to Atlanta] was a great decision. I wouldn’t rather be anywhere else. I’m just thankful for the people around me who supported me for four years.”
And who still will, for as long as March lasts.