Jan. 25, 2009
By Akshay Amaraneni
The last time the Yellow Jackets beat North Carolina was almost seven years ago on January 17, 2002. Head Coach MaChelle Joseph was in her first year as an assistant coach with the program. Several tough seasons and two top-5 recruiting classes later, the Jackets have come full circle in their victory over No. 2 Carolina last Thursday at Alexander Memorial Coliseum.
“I don’t know that we’ve ever beaten the No. 2 team in the country. This is a very significant win,” Joseph said. “We’re going to enjoy this moment because it’s very special for women’s basketball.”
“I couldn’t breathe really, it was really exciting. I’m happy for my teammates and my coach,” said sophomore guard/forward Alex Montgomery.
When Coach Joseph took over the program, the Jackets went through three straight losing seasons before the Jackets broke through with 21 wins in 2006-07.
“Coming in, we knew what kind of style we wanted to play. We had to adjust the first three years because we didn’t have the depth to press or the type of players to press. Over the course of the first three years we were signing recruiting classes to bring players in to help us get to that level,” Joseph said.
During that season, the Jackets broke through with the biggest win in program history when they took down the defending national champion Maryland Terrapins on their home court, 77-72. The Jackets, led by then-senior Stephanie Higgs with 26 points, built a 13 point lead at halftime and used that to coast to a win.
The link between the two games is senior Jacqua Williams from Seattle, Wash. Williams scored 16 that night against Maryland and 14 against Carolina; however, she also made two key free throws to put the Jackets up four points with 21 seconds left.
The Jackets also won their first NCAA tournament game, a year ahead of Joseph’s five year plan, when they beat DePaul 55-54,
“When I interviewed, I said it’s a five year plan. We’ll get to the NCAA tournament in five years. We’ll be a top-25 team and we’ll do it year in and year out. We did it in four and we went back-to-back in the fifth year. We want to get to the sweet sixteen, we want to take the next step,” Joseph added.
Since that tournament, the Jackets brought in two top-5 recruiting classes, the first of which included sophomore team leaders Alex Montgomery and Iasia Hemingway as well as key bench player Deja Foster. The second class brought in freshman starter Sasha Goodlett and backups Mo Bennett, Nisha Adams and Chelsea Regins.
“Sometimes, because they are young, they don’t know how good they are yet…We needed one of these significant wins to prove that we can play with anybody in the country. We’re as good as we want to be,” Joseph said.
Coach Joseph proved her ability to recruit and develop players in the first four years of the program when she took several unheralded players and turned them into back-to-back 20-win teams. The 2007-08 team featured both senior stars like Chioma Nnamaka and Janie Mitchell as well as Montgomery and Hemingway.
This season, the Jackets might have their most talented team under Joseph, but also one of the youngest. Junior Brigitte Ardossi and Williams are the only two upperclassmen that have logged significant playing time this season.
Among the underclassmen, one year under Joseph has made a noticeable difference. Last season, Montgomery averaged 10.8 points per game along with 5.4 rebounds in 27 minutes. This season, she is averaging 13.9 points, 7.1 rebounds in 29.7 minutes per game. Iasia Hemingway averaged 8.5 points and 3.9 rebounds in 23 minutes per game last year. This season she averages 11.1 points and 4.9 rebounds in 29.4 minutes per game. “Offensively, [Montogmery] and [Hemingway] have really added a lot to the team and to this program,” Joseph said.
The most noticeable difference in statistics, however, is Deja Foster. Last year, in just 8 minutes per game, she averaged 2 points and 2 rebounds. This year, she plays 25 minutes per game and scores just under 8 points and secures 4.5 rebounds per contest.
The Jackets still have a tough slate of games ahead of them starting with a quick turnaround until the Duke game this Sunday followed by a trip to North Carolina and games against Maryland and Virginia on the horizon.
“I knew we hadn’t peaked and I feel like we’re starting to find ourselves. When you have 10 freshman and sophomores, you have to think long-term. We’re going to be a pretty special team in February,” Joseph said.