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#TGW: In This Corner, The Challenger…

In This Corner, The Challenger…
For freshman forward Elizabeth Dixon, the bigger the challenge, the better
By Jon Cooper
The Good Word

Motivating athletes is a big part of coaching.

Sometimes the best way to do that is by challenging them to do something or do something better and see how they respond.

Good athletes that become great ones answer the challenge and relish doing so.

Count Elizabeth Dixon as one of those.

“Whenever I challenge her she responds,” said Georgia Tech women’s basketball coach MaChelle Joseph following Sunday afternoon’s 76-55 loss to No. 1 Notre Dame at McCamish Pavilion. “She was tentative early but I thought in the second half she did a good job offensively. I thought she did a great job. For a freshman against them, 12 and 7, she came to play.”

“She basically said that I wasn’t doing enough and the way that I was playing on the court, I was playing like I was timid,” said Dixon, the 6-5 freshman forward from Ridgeway High School in Memphis, Tennessee, the youngest daughter and third child of four of Nigeria natives, Richard and Elizabeth Dixon. “I knew, myself, that I wasn’t doing enough so I had to find more ways to step up and help my team.”

In the second half, Dixon was more aggressive, and while it wasn’t enough to get the Yellow Jackets (11-4, 1-1) back against the Irish, it did give her confidence heading into Thursday night’s home game against Duke (8-6, 0-2). She knows she’ll have to play big against the bigger Blue Devils — their starting five owns an average two-inch height advantage (73.25, with nine players at least 6-0 to Tech’s 71.71 and eight six-footers).

“From what Coach has said, they’re the tallest team in the ACC and they’re (probably) going to be playing zone the whole game,” said Dixon of the Blue Devils, who hold a 61-9 series edge and a two-game win streak, although the teams have split the past four meetings. “From all the scouting reports I know we’re going to have to execute our game plan very, very well and we have to be on point defensively.”

Facing Duke, on the heels of playing Notre Dame, is the next step in a rugged conference-opening gauntlet for the young Jackets. Following Duke, they’ll travel to No. 2 Louisville, then to Death Valley to challenge Clemson, before returning home to battle two more ranked teams, No. 12 Syracuse and No. 8 NC State.

“Those are all great teams. It is going to be challenging, there’s no doubt about it,” she said. “But I’m also really excited because now it gives us a chance to prove people wrong and show what we can do because we can play with all of those teams. I know we can if we come ready to play and execute the game plan perfectly. So I’m just really excited to prove a point.”

Dixon has made a habit of proving a point.

It began with her learning to deal with always being the tallest person in her class growing up,

“I’ve just always been the tallest in my class, the tallest out of all the girls and guys,” she said, recalling that she shot past her mom height-wise in middle school. “It bothered me at first because I was a little girl and I didn’t really understand but I got used to it.

“I had to learn how to build my self-confidence,” she added. “In middle school it was something I had to learn how to build up and once I did it was totally fine. I didn’t get bothered by anything or anybody. It helped a lot more when I started playing basketball. I had a purpose for my height.”

Dixon has been playing with a purpose this season. She enters the Duke game third on the team in scoring (10.3 ppg), leads the team in rebounding (6.8 rpg, 20th in the ACC), and offensive rebounding (3.8 orpg, third in the ACC) and is tied for second with center Lorela Cubaj in blocks (19, tied for 11th in the league, although her 1.3 bpg, tie Pitt’s Cara Judkins for 10th), one behind leader, guard Elizabeth Balogun. In two ACC games Dixon is averaging 12.0 points (she’s scored 12 in each game), and 8.5 rebounds (17), with 4.5 off the offensive glass (including a team-high six in the win at Boston College). That her numbers are trending upward through two games in ACC play — including the one against the nation’s top-ranked team — has her confidence heading the same way.

“I’ve seen that I can play with them, which is really exciting to me, being a freshman,” she said. “I feel like the girls are stronger, faster, longer and also smarter. I have to continue to work on my game but I feel I can play with them and I’m really excited about that.”

While Joseph said she feels Dixon needs to make the biggest jump on the defensive end, she said Sunday that the Jackets as a whole, need to especially improve offensively. Their 71.2 points per game rank 10th in the ACC — actually nearly 8.0 ppg higher than Duke (63.6) — and they were held 16 points below that average by Notre Dame.

“We’ve got to score. We have to hit open shots and we’ve got to have better offensive execution against the zone because Duke’s going to play 40 minutes of zone as well,” said Joseph. “We’ve got our post players, Cubaj has to come in and make plays for us in the paint and (Francesca) Pan’s got to make plays for us on the perimeter. The freshmen did what they needed to do. Both of them are shooting right at 50 percent.”

The freshman Elizabeths, Dixon and Balogun, now have four ACC Rookie of the Week awards after Balogun won her third this past week. Joseph believes the entire freshman class learned a valuable lesson from Sunday’s loss, in which the Jackets were outscored 60-20 in the paint and 24-9 on the break.

“They know now the intensity level you have to play at and we have to score,” she said. “You have to score against these teams, against Louisville, against Notre Dame, against Duke, you have to score to set your defense. You can’t let them beat you in transition. Those points in the paint were in transition and out of our presses. We’ve been pretty soft in our presses and I think this will get their attention of what we have to do to compete at a high level.”

Dixon feels the freshmen class is growing and will show growth off Sunday.

“Basically we have a lot of things to learn but I think we’ve come together pretty well,” she said. “We all know our goal and know all the things we have to sacrifice and all the things we have to do to achieve our goal. Like, we all want to make it to the NCAA Tournament this year and we know it’s hard work. So we all are giving ourselves to the team and we have to come in and work hard at practice every single day. I feel like we’re doing that.”

She’s ready to get in the zone and take on the Duke zone.

“I don’t really see my role changing that much but I know that now I have a better chance to find the open gaps to score,” she said. “I also have to be little bit faster to the spot on defense so I don’t get in early foul trouble and I can actually help get stops because they’re a pretty tall team and a long team.”

While Dixon admits Notre Dame was a learning experience she feels there’s no more room for moral victories that “help down the road.” The challenges are here and now.

“It wasn’t bad in the locker room but it was kind of upsetting because we know as a team, we could have done better,” she said. “It was really about facing all of our mistakes and knowing what we should have done that we didn’t do.

“Now that we’ve done that, we can only go up from here,” she added. “I plan on winning now!”

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