Point Guard Imani Tilford doing anything and everything to get the job done
By Jon Cooper
The Good Word
Nicknames can be a funny thing.
Sometimes they’re based on a positive trait or something real, sometimes they’re based on something funny — usually to someone else — or ironic.
Imani Tilford is an example of the latter.
The 5-2 junior point guard from Greenburgh, N.Y., hardly fits her nickname, “Chubbs,” yet it’s been hers for as long as she can remember and is something that has stayed with her, regardless.
“My uncle used to be my AAU coach and I used to travel everywhere with him and every time I was with him I was always eating,” she recalled, with a laugh. “When I was younger I used to be chubby, so he just started calling me ‘Chubbs.’ From my AAU career, and when I started getting letters, they would put Imani “Chubbs” Tilford [on the envelope]. It just went on with me through college.”
Tilford doesn’t really mind what she’s called, as long as Georgia Tech women’s basketball head coach MaChelle Joseph keeps calling on her.
That should continue as long as she keeps contributing as she has in the ways she has.
“She has been that X-factor,” said Joseph. “If we need rebounds she gets rebounds. If we need a three-point shot at a key time she gets the three-point shot. If we need a steal she gets a steal. Her effort, her hustle, her heart, her energy is what gets us going every game. I’ve been extremely pleased with her leadership.”
Joseph’s raves came after Tilford recorded her first career double-double (11 points, 11 rebounds) in Georgia Tech’s 73-42 rout of Georgia State on Dec. 3 at McCamish Pavilion, her first start of the season. Tilford shared game-high rebounding honors with freshman Chanin Scott and was third in scoring.
In her second start on Wednesday night in the 70-50 victory over Mercer, Tilford had another superb all-around game, scoring a team-high 15 points, on 6-for-8 shooting, 3-for-3 from three-point range, handed out eight assists, and pulled five rebounds. It was Tilford’s fifth straight double-digit scoring game and sixth of the season. She had four double-digit-scoring games her first two years on The Flats.
Tilford heads into Sunday’s game against Appalachian State (2 p.m. at McCamish Pavilion) second on the team in scoring (11.4 ppg), is third in shooting percentage at 48.5 percent and leads the team hitting 50 percent of her three-point shots.
“It’s definitely fun now because, in the offseason I worked a lot on my jump shot so that this can happen,” Tilford said. “Coming from high school I was always a scorer but coming here it’s a different atmosphere. You have to get into the rhythm of how you play in college because college is different than high school. Coming in my junior year I wanted to get back to what I was doing in high school and so I had to improve my jump shot to do that. I’m glad that I worked hard and now I’m seeing the work pay off.
“I’m definitely more confident in my jump shooting,” she added. “I worked hard on it. When you work hard at something you just know that when you shoot it’s going in. So that’s what I feel when I shoot every time. Even when I air-balled against Michigan, I thought it was going in. I have more of a swag to my jump shot now.”
Tilford’s entire game has a lot more swag to it. Over Tech’s past four games, she’s shot a sizzling 51.3 percent (20-for-39), 75 percent (6-for-8) from three. Since getting back into the starting lineup Imani is shooting 66.7 percent (10-for-15), 80.0 from three (4-for-5), with 16 rebounds and 10 assists.
The three-point shooting is especially rewarding yet, understandably unexpected, as Tilford hadn’t hit a three-point field goal her freshman or sophomore season, having only attempted four.
Actually, the offensive fireworks didn’t surface this season until Nov. 25 at the Junkanoo Jam in the Bahamas, where she came alive, scoring 35 points, and shooting 50 percent (7-for-14, 1-for-2 from three), while hitting 20 of 27 free throws, including the Jackets’ top two games of the season from the line — 11 FTMs against Missouri the day after making nine against Dayton.
Joseph credits Tilford for her off-season dedication and admits she saw signs of Tilford’s game coming together at the end of the 2015-16 season.
“She ended the season last year with a tremendous amount of confidence,” Joseph said. “She doubled her scoring output the last six games (56 points, 9.3 ppg), when we won six of our last eight. Then over the summer she put in a lot of time.”
While the shooting has been something of a pleasant surprise, Tilford’s work on the boards is as expected. Her 3.9 rpg are up more than a board-and-a-half from her 2.3 career average and her 2.5 last season.
“I’m always committed to rebounding because Coach Jo always says for the guards if we get the rebound you can just push it up the floor and I like to push in transition and find the shooters or get to the rim,” she said. “Sometimes the ball just falls in my hands but I have to box out for some of them and dig them out sometimes. I’m not afraid to go into the paint.”
Joseph credits Tilford’s maturity and resolve in working her way back into the starting lineup.
Although the Jackets were 12-5 in the games Imani started last season, including both a five-game winning streak and a 7-3 run down the stretch to get into postseason — she began the season coming off the bench.
Instead of hanging her head Tilford hung tough.
“She had a little bit of a slow start,” Joseph said. “I think sometimes when you’ve played so many minutes and you haven’t been challenged here for the first two years as far as playing time she didn’t have anybody pushing her so she kind of got complacent. She was put in a position to dig and claw her way out and I thought she showed great character and poise. She was patient and came out and got the job done when we needed her to.
“She had to earn her way back and work her way back out there,” Joseph added. “You say, ‘Adversity doesn’t build character, it reveals it.’ I really thought she showed what kind of character she had the first five games and it’s really paid off for us down the stretch here.”
The dividends should continue to roll in for the Jackets now that Tilford has found her stride, her shot and her confidence and continues to grow her game.
“I’m working on different moves to get free or different moves to the basket because I’m more of a penetrator but now I can shoot,” she said. “So I definitely work on shooting with somebody in my face and shooting in open space.
“It’s coming around my junior year,” she added. “I’m getting more confident with my jump shooting as well as driving to the basket so now people have to play me for both, not just driving to the basket.”
“I’m just really pleased with her. She’s done exactly what we’ve needed her to do in every single game this year,” said Joseph. “It’s kind of what I expected from the beginning of the year. That’s what you expect from your junior point guard that has played over 60 games. You expect her to take charge in games and make plays.”