Captain Crunch Time
Junior captain Francesca Pan has learned her role and is playing it just right, just in time for postseason
By Jon Cooper
The Good Word
Georgia Tech women’s basketball won its fourth-straight game Thursday night, routing a good Clemson team, 75-53, at McCamish Pavilion.
For the third time in that winning streak, Francesca Pan was not the team’s leading scorer.
For the fourth time in that winning streak, the junior guard left the floor beaming. The reason for the smile is simple. The Yellow Jackets got the ‘W.’
That’s plenty good enough for Pan.
Even better is knowing that while she’s still the No. 1 option, she’s not the only one.
“I think Francesca Pan has accepted her role and understands it,” said head coach MaChelle Joseph following the win over the Tigers. “Her role is still to be a go-to player but she doesn’t have to do it from the jump. She can pick and choose her shots because we have multiple scorers. Now she trusts her teammates to take shots and open up things for her. When our posts are scoring the outside opens up and vice versa.
I really was pleased with the way Pan bounced back in the second half,” Joseph added. “We’ve seen her have tough starts this year but not come back in the second half and shoot the ball with confidence. It was great to see her get on track.”
Pan’s second-half bounce-back against Clemson — she finished with 12 points on 4-for-8 shooting, 4-for-7 from three, after a scoreless first half in which she was 0-for-5, 0-for-2 from three — mirrors the Yellow Jackets’ ACC season.
The Jackets, who travel to Charlottesville for a Sunday matchup with Virginia, are 7-6 in the conference and ninth place, but only a half-game behind North Carolina and Clemson. They were 3-6 on Feb. 3.
In three of the Jackets’ four wins during the current streak, power forward Elizabeth Dixon has been leading scorer. In fact, Pan’s led the team in scoring five times all season — only once in ACC play — while freshman guard Elizabeth Balogun has been high scorer 11 times, Dixon has on seven occasions, sophomore point Kierra Fletcher has paced the Jackets five times and center Lorela Cubaj has led the team once.
Pan doesn’t mind letting the kids drive the bus.
“We are a really talented team and we have really smart freshmen,” she said. “They don’t look like freshmen, really. We’ve come together and the chemistry of the team is good.”
Of course, there are still times when Pan WILL take the wheel. In last Sunday’s 76-68 home win over Virginia Tech, she stepped forward and took firm control, dominating as she has in the past. She matched her career-high with 26 points on 7-for-16 shooting, 5-for-11 from three and 7-for-9 from the line. In the final quarter, she scored 15 points, including going 2-for-2 from three, hitting seven free throws in the nine attempts to seal the deal and even made two steals on defense.
The 16 field goal attempts were her ACC season-high, while her 11 3PTFGAs and nine FTAs were season highs. The five 3’s made also matched her career high.
“Francesca Pan put us on her back and carried us and did SO many things for us today on the offensive end,” said Joseph, following the win over the Hokies.
“When I went on the court today, I felt confident. I was shooting with confidence,” said Pan, breaking out a huge smile. “I knew the shots were going to go in because I was confident in myself. I feel the confidence. When I’m on the court, I know my teammates have my back no matter what. So I feel free to play. I’m just helping my team to win. This win was crucial for us and it was a great team win.”
This confident Pan is playing like the improved and more mature version that won ACC Freshman of the Year in 2017 and earned a spot on the 2019 Cheryl Miller Award watch list as selected by the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame and the Women’s Basketball Coaches Association (WBCA).
Pan not only is scoring more, averaging 15.8 points per game during the streak, and shooting better from behind the arc, a sizzling 41.3 percent (12-for-29), but she’s been fearless in taking the shot, putting up 55 (13.8 per game) in the four games. She’s also been superb distributing, having handed out 13 assists (3.3 per game), while on the defensive end she’s made 12 steals (3.0 per game). The durable Pan is logging 134 minutes (33.5 per game).
Even in what has been something of a tough year, Pan has still contributed on both ends of the floor. Offensively she’s second on the team in scoring (12.1 ppg, behind Balogun), second in three-point field goals (55, Balogun has 58), third in field goals (109, behind Balogun, 144, and Dixon, 112) and fourth in assists (48), while on the defensive end she leads the team in steals (55, eight more than Fletcher) and is fourth in blocks (11).
“She’s just playing the game. She’s taking shots for her team. She’s taking shots for her team to win,” said Joseph. “She understands her role better now, that she has to be that player to step up for us. I think she’s doing a great job leading her teammates and also taking on a lot of responsibility as a junior and a veteran junior, somebody who’s been a bigtime player in this league for three years. That’s what we were looking for her to do all year and I’m just really proud of her because she could have sunk down into a hole but she didn’t. She came out fighting and, obviously, she’s played really well in February.”
“I’m so proud of Pan,” said fellow junior guard Chanin Scott. “She’s been playing like the Pan that I know. This is my third year playing with her. I’ve seen her best games and she’s adding to them with these games right now. It gives everyone energy.”
Pan is looking to fuel the Jackets stretch run and charge into the ACC Tournament with the ultimate goal of reaching the NCAA Tournament. That would be quite a feat in this year’s ACC, where the top six teams rank in the top 25 — No. 5 Notre Dame, No. 4 Louisville, No. 9 NC State, No. 14 Miami, No. 22 Florida State, and No. 18 Syracuse.
Joseph thinks the team will be up to the challenge, especially after having survived the brutal first half of the conference season.
“We just continue to get better and our confidence is growing,” she said. “That first half of playing, every Sunday in January we played a top-10 team in the country. This league is a beast. We have six teams in the top 25 in RPI in the country. I’ve never seen us have that many teams in the top 25 in the RPI. I think the next closest conference has two in the top 20. So if this league doesn’t get nine teams in the NCAA Tournament something’s wrong because this league is tremendous, from top to bottom.”
Pan agrees and is doing whatever needs to be done to remove any doubt for the selection committee and instill confidence in the seven-freshman-deep team as it heads into postseason.
“We are playing well together,” she said. “It doesn’t matter how old the team is. What matters is playing together and creating a great chemistry. We have talent, too. We have experienced players, too. All that matters is playing together and getting our stuff together. We need to keep up the energy, we need to keep playing well and play together and we’re going to do great things.”