ACC Play Up Next for WBB
Women’s hoops confidence is growing as they open ACC schedule
By Jon Cooper
The Good Word
There’s no place like home for the holidays.
Georgia Tech women’s basketball would agree, as their 7-1 home start to the 2016-17 season would attest.
They’re counting on staying in that holiday spirit this week as ACC play begins against two of the conference heavyweights, Notre Dame tonight and Duke on Thursday. Tip-off for both games is 7 p.m.
In the past, playing this duo has not been fun, as Tech is 0-6 all-time vs. No. 2/2 Notre Dame (12-2, 0-1), and 9-59 against No. 15/17 Duke (12-1, 0-0), which opens ACC play Monday night hosting Louisville.
In fairness, not many teams HAVE fared well against these two giants, who have combined to win each of the last seven ACC regular-season championships and six of those seven ACC Tournaments.
But these Jackets (11-2) prefer to leave the past in the past. They’re looking at right now and believe that right now they’re playing at a level that makes talk of upsets real, not wishful thinking.
“They’re two of the toughest but we’re at home and we’ve beaten Duke two times in a row, so our kids have a lot of confidence,” said head coach MaChelle Joseph, whose team enters Monday night with their best non-conference record since going 13-2 in 2009-10, having won at least 10 non-conference games for the 10th time in her tenure. “We’ve played well against Notre Dame the last couple of years. I feel confident in every player that we put on the floor. If our top 14 players are healthy and available I think we can be very competitive with Notre Dame.”
There’s reason for that confidence. The Jackets may be winless against the Irish, 0-5 since 2014 when they became ACC rivals, but all five games have been close, with the largest spread in any of those games being 15 points.
High-powered Notre Dame, which is coming off a 70-62 loss at NC State in its ACC opener on Dec. 29, averages nearly 12 points a game more than Tech (80.5-68.6) and shoots at one of the best percentages in the ACC (48.9, 39.2 from three, both second), led by junior Brianna Turner (15.3 ppg, ninth in the ACC) and long-range threats Arike Ogunbowale (14.3, 14th, 39.5 from three, 12th), and Erin Boley (40.0 from three, 11th).
But the Jackets play their signature stingy defense, holding opponents to .333 percent shooting, second in the conference, .296 on three’s. While that ranks 10th, it is still 21 points better than Notre Dame.
GT has some three-point fire power of its own, as five players hit at least 34.0 from behind the arc, led by junior Antonia Peresson, who ranks eighth in the ACC with 2.4 three-pointers per game and ninth in school history with 127 3-point field goals made. Freshman Francesca Pan (10.7 ppg, .354 from three), also must be respected.
Tech also can come at Notre Dame with its bigs. The 1-2 punch of junior Zaire O’Neil, the Jackets’ leading scorer (11.0, .560 shooting, 11th in the ACC) and redshirt junior Elo Edeferioka (.508 FG%), have played big and dominated in the paint — the Jackets have won points in the paint nine times and in each of the last six games. ND will provide a test on the glass, as the Fighting Irish rank second in the conference in rebounding margin (plus-13.6), while Georgia Tech is 10th (plus-4.4).
O’Neil was superb as a freshman in ACC play (10.9 ppg, 6.1 rpg, 1.9 bpg in 25.9 mpg) and shares Joseph’s confidence in being able to play with Notre Dame.
“We always give them a good game and they’re always good competition but we’re good, too,” said O’Neil, who scored a team-high 20 points on 8-for-18 shooting with six boards the last time she saw Notre Dame, on Feb. 19, 2015 at McCamish in a 71-61 loss. “So they need to plan on guarding us the same way that we have to guard them. We have to worry about them but they also have to worry about us.”
Edeferioka got a glimpse of this series last year while redshirting and is eager, not anxious about this first meeting with them.
“Right now as a team we’re excited about Notre Dame. We’re looking forward to that game,” she said. “As a team we’re ready. I feel like we’re working together. We’re taking it one step at a time and we’re really excited about conference play.”
For Edeferioka, whose 6.0 rpg led the Jackets in rebounding during non-conference play and who notched two double-doubles in the last four games, there’s the special excitement of playing in her first ACC games, one seven Jackets who will do so.
“I’m really excited. I have a lot of friends that play in the ACC,” she said. “I know it’s going to be tough like they’ve been telling me the whole year and a half. My teammates tell me how it is, how different it is, very fast, coming from another conference. So I’m really looking forward to it. I want to see what the conference has to offer.”
What the Jackets have to offer is maybe the deepest and most versatile team in Joseph’s tenure. It’s a team that can force turnovers (their 18.7 turnovers forced per game rank seventh in the ACC), led by junior point Imani Tilford (2.3 steals per game, ninth), and can beat you inside or outside. They’ll get a shot in the arm by Pan and the continued improvement of transfer guard Kaylan Pugh. Another key performer is sensational freshman Chanin Scott, who’s second on the team in rebounds (5.0 rpg) and is sixth in scoring on .483 shooting (.429 from three).
The Jackets also will count on a loud crowd at McCamish.
While Tech is laser-focused on Notre Dame, the team’s aware that Duke is next, coming to town on Thursday. The Blue Devils, like the Fighting Irish will arrive as an ornery group as GT has back-to-back series wins against the Blue Devils, since Tech snapped a 37-game series losing streak two years ago.
Regardless, Joseph believes her team won’t back down and feels it is finding chemistry and a personality.
“I think we’re starting to really develop our depth,” she said. “We’ve developed some roles for our freshmen. With Anne (Francoise Diouf), Zutorya Cook and with [grad student] Cha’Ron Sweeney, I think we’ve found some minutes for them. We’ve been able to give them an opportunity to contribute. Even though Katarina [Vuckovic] isn’t scoring for us she’s doing a lot of things. She’s rebounding and defending and she just gets her hands on a lot of things because of her size.”
O’Neil knows that contributions from everyone are needed while running the gauntlet of ACC play.
“It’s ALWAYS a tough night when you play in the ACC,” she said. “So we have to bring it every night if we want to be a great team. I tell them that we have to bring it every day in practice so that it transfers over to the game because every game is going to be tough.”