Dream Ending In Reach
Yellow Jackets look to complete Katarina Vuckovic’s career, amazing WNIT run with a championship
By Jon Cooper
The Good Word
The applause at McCamish Pavilion built in a crescendo with two seconds remaining and Georgia Tech up 69-61 on Washington State, Wednesday night.
Some of it was jubilation on finally having put away the stubborn Cougars in a hard-fought WNIT Semifinal.
A lot more of it had to do with what was happening on the Yellow Jackets bench, where senior forward Katarina Vuckovic was coming out of the game to earn a standing ovation from the Yellow Jackets faithful.
As Vuckovic reached the bench she and head coach MaChelle Joseph hugged.
This wasn’t a “We won” hug. They’d had those before — 50 times before over four years to be precise.
This one was more.
Sure, the hug following home win No. 51 for the duo was special because it allowed the Yellow Jackets to advance to the program’s first WNIT Final, Saturday afternoon against Michigan at Calihan Hall in Detroit, Mich. (Tip-off is at 3 p.m. and can be seen on the CBS Sports Network). But this was extra special because it would be the final time the 6-3 forward from Smederevo, Serbia, and the coach that brought her to The Flats would get to celebrate a victory in front of the home fans.
“It’s amazing. There are just so many emotions right now,” Vuckovic said immediately afterward. “Finishing my career at home this way, I just couldn’t ask for a better way.”
All season long Vuckovic knew that moment was coming and managed to keep the emotion under wraps. After the hug that was no longer possible.
“That’s when it actually hit me, when Coach Jo took me out. That’s when the emotions started coming,” she said. “I tried to hold it but when people came up and started talking to me, I just couldn’t it hold it anymore.”
Joseph was similarly moved during her postgame.
“I just felt so proud of her because she’s come so far and the things she’s overcome,” said Joseph, her voice quivering slightly. “Her loyalty, her perseverance, her toughness, her commitment to the program, her commitment to me, her commitment — I don’t know that I’ve ever coached a player more consistent off the floor than Katarina Vuckovic.”
Consistent as in always being there for Georgia Tech students as a member of the Student-Athlete Advisory Board, the local community — enough to earn a spot on the 2016 Allstate WBCA Good Works Team — and her teammates, especially for the international players.
Georgia Tech currently has seven internationals on the roster. When Vuckovic arrived in Atlanta in 2013, she was one of two (Swedish senior guard/forward Frida Fogdemark was the other). The following season, she was the lone returning international player. She went all-in in the role of welcoming committee and liaison for Italian guard Antonia Peresson and Romanian center Simina Avram. Vuckovic, taking the two newcomers under her wing and getting them assimilated to college basketball and college life.
“Kat really helped me out,” said Peresson. “She really carried us the first year. She was showing me everything around the campus. On the court she was the one coming to talk to us because she went through it. So she really helped us to get through the first year. She was always there. Kat has been a person that is always present for everybody in this program. So it’s good that we are having another game for her.”
It would have been impossible NOT to rally around Vuckovic. She’ll finish her collegiate career on Saturday having played in 132 straight games over four years — the only games she missed were the first five of her freshman year due to a knee injury.
On the floor there hasn’t been anything Vuckovic wouldn’t do to try to bring a championship to Georgia Tech.
“I’ve never had an issue with her,” said Joseph. “She always did what she was supposed to do, she always did it at a high level. I’ve said it several times. She’s the epitome of what we want a student-athlete to be at Georgia Tech.
“She and Antonia Peresson are the only two players on my team that know every position on the floor,” Joseph said. “They could play one through five, they know every play, in- and out-of-bounds play, defense, everything at all five positions. Those are really special players.”
In Georgia Tech’s win over Washington State, Vuckovic’s defensive position in their triangle-and-two set played a key role in Tech’s comeback from 11 points down with 4:02 left in the third quarter. The defense keyed an 18-0 run in which the Cougars went scoreless over a 10:01 span from 3:49 of the third quarter to 3:48 of the fourth.
Vuckovic was at the apex of the triangle.
“At 6-3, she can guard point guards and centers,” Joseph said. “When we were playing our ‘junk defense’ she was taking up a lot of space at the top of the triangle. I think Kat’s length is what makes her special.”
The Jackets would like to have a special send-off for Vuckovic on Saturday in Detroit. That inspiration plus seeking revenge for the 92-52 loss back on Dec. 1 at McCamish in the ACC/Big 10 Challenge has the team at an emotional peak.
“We are a totally different team,” said Peresson. “We had that really bad loss. We talked about it after the loss. We tried to change a lot of things that right now are working. So we’re going to get there with a different mindset and we’re going to get it back. I think everybody’s happy that we have the opportunity for revenge.”
It’s not that Vuckovic needs a title to be a champion, but it’s an honor she’d certainly like to have and one the team would like to give her.
“I think it would be tremendous because of the journey Kat’s been on throughout her career here,” said Joseph. “She’s the only player left on my team that’s been in the NCAA Tournament, so she’s had four years of postseason play. Now the fact that she’s playing for a championship, it’s just a tremendous opportunity for her.
“Our other senior, (Cha’Ron Sweeney) is from Ohio, played in Michigan. So it’s a chance for her to go back home,” Joseph added. “So to have the opportunity to go to Michigan and play is really special for us.”
“I think Kat did a lot of good things for this program in general and for us as a team,” said Peresson. “It was good to have this win for Kat and to let her have another game with Georgia Tech.”
All Kat wants is what she’s wanted since the WNIT began — to win her last game.
“Not a lot of people get that opportunity,” said Vuckovic. “UConn and whoever wins the WNIT. So we’re really excited for that opportunity. We’re going to try and go all the way.”