March 3, 2016
By Jon Cooper | The Good Word
Aaliyah Whiteside never really got the hang of the self-promotion game.
She never perfected the chest-pound or pose-strike or fancy-dance heading down court.
It may be the only weakness in her game but is something she’ll simply continue to play through as her career that heads into its final postseason beginning tonight at 6 p.m. when the seventh-seeded Yellow Jackets take on No. 10 Wake Forest at Greensboro Coliseum.
This lack of flair hasn’t hurt, as the honors keep rolling in for the otherwise unassuming 6-0 guard from Memphis, Tenn., who basically gave the college basketball world no choice but to notice her.
Every senior wants to go out with bang and it’s hard to imagine a bigger one than the one surrounding Whiteside and her final days as a collegian. The eruption began on Sunday, as Whiteside led Tech to a 66-51 win over the Demon Deacons at McCamish Pavilion, recording 19 points, seven rebounds and two blocks, clinching the regular-season ACC scoring title (19.4 ppg, 18.9 in ACC play), which she held wire-to-wire, in the process. On Tuesday she was named First-Team All-ACC, then, on Wednesday was awarded Georgia Women’s College Basketball Player of the Year.
“It feels good to see that all that hard work has paid off,” she said. “There is definitely appreciation to my teammates, my coaches who have always had my back and it feels good to go out that way, being a part of that team.”
Whiteside extended the run of Yellow Jackets reaching First-Team All-ACC to four consecutive years, a run that, coincidentally, began her freshman year, with Ty Marshall, who made it in 2013 and ‘14, then was continued by Kaela Davis, who has since transferred, last year. This year, it was her turn.
“I am so excited for Aaliyah,” said head coach MaChelle Joseph. “She deserves this honor. She is without a doubt the most improved player in the ACC this year. Aaliyah has been the heart and soul of our team all season long and has provided great leadership to a very young team.”
Whiteside, who averaged a combined 8.0 ppg over her first two seasons, then proceeded to jump to 13.4 as a junior then 19.4 as a senior, recognized and embraced the leadership role and credits her teammates for the team’s success.
“It feels good to have my teammates looking up to me as a senior and it feels good to produce,” she said. “Also, it’s good to see other players stepping up, so I think it’s all coming together. I think it’s all becoming a team effect. It’s not one player standing out. I think we’re all contributing and it works that way.”
As for her success, Whiteside credits Joseph for instilling a mindset she wouldn’t have allowed herself to even dream of back when she first arrived on the Flats.
“As a freshman, I don’t know if I would have said ‘I see myself as First-Team All-ACC.’ But Coach Jo had a vision from Day One,” said Whiteside, who raised her scoring, rebounding and assist averages each of her four years. “She pushes every player. She sees potential in every single player. Her coaching staff, as well. They all put in the time and effort when you need them. They’ll get in the gym with you, they’ll coach you. She’s there for every single player and she pushes them the exact same.”
The 2015-16 season was a culmination of four years of getting coached up and it began from Day One. Realizing that someone had to and pick up the offensive burden left by Davis’ transferring and the graduation of three-point-shooter extraordinaire Sydney Wallace, Whiteside stepped forward. She scored at least 20 points in each of the first eight games, in nine of the first 10 and 16 times in 29 games. She was lethal at the foul line, setting the school record for free throws made by shooting 83.7 percent and 84.8 in crunch time. Whiteside also distributed superbly, leading the Jackets with 2.7 assists per game. She just missed the trifecta, gathering 7.2 rebounds, 10th in the ACC — two-tenths of a point (seven rebounds) behind team leader and fellow senior captain Roddreka Rogers, who finished ninth in the Conference in rebounding. Whiteside had five double-figure-rebound games and came in with nine on five other occasions. One of those nine-rebound games came on Dec. 14 vs. Prairie View A&M, when she also had a 14-point, 11-rebound double-double.
Aaliyah credited Rogers for their work on the boards.
“[Roddreka’s] always been a great rebounder,” said Whiteside. “If anything I feel like I’m pushing her to out-rebound ME. She’s a great rebounder. I’m trying to keep pushing her she pushes me.”
That push and push back from the senior leaders proved extremely valuable to the young Yellow Jackets over the course of the season. They head into the ACC Tournament having won four in a row and six of their last eight games. Included in there — in addition to the season-closing win over Wake — is a win at Duke on Feb. 21. The ‘W’ is historic as it’s the first for Joseph at Cameron Indoor and the program’s first in 23 years. As important for the Jackets, the game was one of only two all season where Whiteside scored in single-digits, although she still grabbed 10 boards and handed out three assists.
Getting everyone involved was a team goal all season and is paying off now.
“I think now, we’re winning more because we have more people involved,” said Whiteside, who became only the fifth player in Georgia Tech history to lead the team in both scoring and assists and the first since Stephanie Higgs in 2006-07. “Yeah, it was great having those high-scoring games but I think now we’re playing more as a team. I think that goes a long way when you’re sharing the ball because chemistry’s better and everybody has their role. I think everyone plays better. We’re all playing for the same goal, we’re all on the same page.”
Aaliyah will start writing the final pages of her collegiate career Thursday night when the Jackets meet Wake, against whom they are 2-2 in ACC Tournament action, but she admits that she won’t begin seriously considering her legacy both in Georgia Tech and in the ACC until after the games are done.
“[The scoring title] will be something great to tell my family and my kids. It will always be something that goes down in history,” she said. “I guess all of this hasn’t really hit me. I’m just worried about playing but it definitely feels good. I think after this year I’ll really look back and feel really great about the season.”