By Matt Winkeljohn
The Good Word
With an even bigger smile than usual, Zaire O’Neal the other day looked forward to Georgia Tech’s Thursday night WNIT game against Jacksonville in McCamish Pavilion as a reward of two sorts.
It will have been two weeks since the Yellow Jackets (17-14) fell to Miami in the ACC Tournament, so for the first time in a long time, their legs aren’t numb; they’re fresh. Plus, with all but senior forward Katarina Vuckovic and graduate student guard Cha’Ron Sweeney slated to return, it’ll be a jump start for the 2017-18 season.
“I would say that as the season went on, we were tired. Our bodies were breaking down,” said the Jackets’ leading scorer and rebounder. “Having this break from the ACC Tournament to postseason, it gives you time to recover and focus on things that need fixed.”
Not so fresh after a scourge through a rugged conference in which seven teams are currently ranked in the AP top 25, there’s a little more spring in the Jackets’ step.
Tech played nine games against those seven, meeting No. 2 Notre Dame twice and playing No. 16 Miami a second time in the ACC Tournament March 2.
No less onerous, the Jackets’ bye came so early – after their second conference contest – that they played their final 14 conference games in just over six weeks.
Given that six of their top 10 scorers this season were new to the ACC either as freshmen or transfers, it was a grind to where head coach MaChelle Joseph at times had to put on the brakes.
“We won three of our last five ACC games, and I think that’s because we were rested,” she said. “We didn’t practice very much. We just basically played the games. When we had this time off, we were able to rest and recover our legs and our minds.
“The mental fatigue of being a student at Georgia Tech on top of being an athlete in the ACC, by February and March their minds are on overload.”
The Jackets believe they’re on the verge of something pretty sweet.
Nine of their losses came by a combined 33 points, including one-point losses at North Carolina, Clemson and Virginia, and they lost in overtime at Wake Forest. There was a two-point loss at Alabama in December, too.
They have an idea what they can do based both on close calls, and wins over Georgia and Syracuse, now ranked No. 21.
Defense has been somewhat inconsistent.
O’Neal battled a mid-season foot injury, yet leads the Jackets with averages of 12.8 points and 5.5 rebounds. In ACC action, she went 14.4 and 6.8. Freshman Francesca Pan was named ACC Freshman of the Year upon scoring 11.3 points in conference action, and adding 3.6 rebounds.
Jacksonville (23-8) will not likely go quietly.
The Dolphins last season upset Florida Gulf Coast in the Atlantic Sun championship game to earn an NCAA bid, ending a seven-year, 71-game home ASUN winning streak for FGCU.
This season, they went 11-3 in conference, as senior guard Sherrand Reddick averaged 16.9 points and made 41 percent of her 3-pointers, more than three per game.
Douglas County High School graduate Christin Mercer averages 13.2 points and 4.8 rebounds working chiefly in the paint, and junior guard Brandi Bule adds another 12.5 points and 3.3 assists.
Jacksonville has a couple serious rebounders in forwards Kayla Gordon (8.6) and Kimberly Dawkins (8.2) of Jonesboro High.
“I’m impressed with Mercer, who was at Florida,” Joseph said. “She’s got some guards that are really effective on the perimeter. They played Florida State, South Florida, teams that are in the NCAA Tournament.”
In making their third-straight WNIT appearance, Jackets are building for the future to be sure, yet not forsaking this season.
“With our program, 10 of the last 11 years we’ve been in the postseason so it’s an expectation for us,” Joseph said. “Obviously, anybody prefers to play in the NCAA Tournament, but at this point when you’ve got a team with everybody back except two players – you want to play any time, any place.
“This team’s been on a journey all year long, and I keep seeing growth and development . . . We’re just now starting to find ourselves as a team. I’m really excited about the opportunities that the postseason presents for this team, but also moving forward with everybody back.”
Jacksonville averaged 76.1 points per game at home, where the Dolphins were 14-1, and 60.8 in road games, where they’re 7-6.
O’Neal also has an extra edge. While she was being recruited out of Malcolm X Shabazz High School in Newark, N.J., Jacksonville head coach Yolett McPhee-McCuin assisted at Clemson.
“I have a little special relationship with the coach. She was recruiting me, and we’ve just always been connected,” O’Neal explained. “I follow her and one of her assistant coaches on Instagram. It will be fun to actually play against them.”