Junior Zaire O’Neil’s toughness key Yellow Jackets’ season-opening win over Samford
By Jon Cooper
The Good Word
Last season was tough for Georgia Tech forward Zaire O’Neil.
As a sophomore, she showed tremendous heart in coming back from ACL surgery but never got back to the form of her freshman season — or even 100 percent according to head coach MaChelle Joseph.
On Friday night at McCamish Pavilion, O’Neil showed that her junior season is going to be a tough one as well — tough on anybody that gets in her way.
The Samford Bulldogs were the first to find that out.
The 5-11 forward scored a game-high 16 points, 14 in the second half, and dominated the paint on both ends of the floor in Georgia Tech’s 62-57 come-from-behind win over the stubborn Bulldogs.
O’Neil showed her toughness, taking a pounding against smaller Samford, which frequently played with four guards, and impressing in the process.
“I thought Zaire O’Neil was tough inside, hard for them to guard,” said Joseph, who raised her record to 13-1 in season- and home-openers, while Tech improved to 4-0 all-time against Samford. “They were very physical with Zaire. She didn’t move without getting hit, all night. I’m sure when I watch the tape I’m going to see tons and tons of times that they were holding her, they were pushing her, they were shoving her. That’s how you have to play when you’re under-sized in the post. They did a great job of being very, very physical with her.”
In the first half, the physical play seemed to work, as O’Neil had only two points on only 1-for-5 shooting, although she also had a game-high five rebounds (the Jackets had 13). However, she felt the slow start was more her doing than anything done to her.
“In the beginning of the game I was like rushing, rushing, rushing,” she said. “Once I slowed down I was like, `I got this’ and my teammates kept telling me, `You’ve got this. This is what you worked hard all summer for.’ I was like, `If they believe in me I’ve got to believe in me, too.'”
Reinforced self-confidence and a halftime adjustment in which entry passes into the post emanated from the wings instead of from up top, opened things up, and allowed O’Neil to take over and made believers out of the Bulldogs.
She put up six points on five shots within the first 3:33 of the second half and shot 5-for-8 in the second half. She added four points on six attempts from the foul line — a place she hadn’t been in the first half.
Pounding the ball inside and a smothering, more aggressive full-court press allowed the Jackets to survive the Bulldogs’ devastating three-point attack — 10 of their 16 field goals for the game came from beyond the arc, including six on eight tries in the second quarter. Guards Zutorya Cook and Chanin Scott pressured the ball in the back court, while long defenders senior forward Katarina Vuckovic and freshman guard Francesca Pan forced tougher passes and limited the open looks.
When Samford chose to forego the three and drive the paint, there was O’Neil. On three different occasions, she planted herself, putting her body on the line and drawing offensive fouls, including a key offensive fourth foul on Samford senior guard Brittany Stevens with 8:19 remaining and the Bulldogs up 10. Stevens left the game and the Jackets went on a 12-0 run to take the lead as part of a game-closing 22-7 charge.
“You saw Zaire O’Neil take three charges tonight,” said Joseph. “We pride ourselves on being blue-collar and taking charges. Those were key charges that turned the momentum of the game around.”
O’Neil credited Joseph for the mindset of taking the charge and on Friday night, you could say she saw the writing on the wall — or locker room whiteboard.
“That’s the toughness. She’s been instilling toughness in us,” O’Neil said. “The first thing we have on the board up there is `Three-plus charges.’ I’m like, `If anybody’s going to take it I’m going to be the one taking it.’ I just happened to get three of them.
“That’s all we do in practice,” she added. “When we do drills in practice you get the most points for your team because ultimately in the game that’s a stop. So we focus in on taking charges and being tough.”
O’Neil and her teammates will focus in on getting rest on Saturday, in anticipation of their game against SWAC power Alabama State, which comes into McCamish on Sunday (tip-off is at 2 p.m.) having taken one on the chin, 84-54, Friday night at ACC rival North Carolina.
The issue of short turnaround gets short shrift from O’Neil.
“It won’t be difficult because this is what we’re used to. We go three hard days in a row in practice so this is easy for us,” she said. “We’ve worked so hard to get to this point and be able to bounce back and be able to