It’s Go Time!
Georgia Tech on a mission to make a statement in ACC Tournament
By Jon Cooper
The Good Word
When Georgia Tech women’s basketball began its long road, also known as the 2017-18 season, it set a goal of doing something that has never been done at Georgia Tech.
They’ve navigated that road and now that postseason is here, that goal has not changed.
If anything, it’s intensified and starts today, when the 10th-seeded Yellow Jackets (17-12, 6-10) meet 15th-seed Clemson (11-18, 1-15) in the first round of the ACC Tournament. Tip-off at Greensboro Coliseum is set for 3:30.
“We’ve definitely been talking about that and I think the kids, because of the success they had in the WNIT last year, they’re excited about another tournament situation,” said head coach MaChelle Joseph. “They feel like they understand the mindset of ‘Win and advance,’ and ‘Play forward.’ We learned that last year in the WNIT and I think that they’re excited because they have confidence in the fact that they know what it takes to win eight or nine games in a row. That was a tremendous stretch for us.”
Making a similar stretch starts with beating Clemson. The Jackets have tamed the Tigers three straight times, including twice this season (66-33 on Dec. 31, 2017 at McCamish Pavilion, then 60-48 on Feb. 4 at Littlejohn Coliseum) and have won eight of the last nine in the series.
Joseph is wary of Clemson, pointing to the figurative law of averages.
“Any time you play a team three times in a season it’s hard to beat them three times,” she said.
But she’s more excited about the literal law her team has laid down down the stretch. The Jackets won four of their final six regular season games and were very tough in the two losses, at No. 5 Notre Dame, a game tied at the half, and a 64-61 season-ending loss at No. 9/12 Florida State.
“I think we’re playing as well as anybody in the league right now,” said Joseph, who’s teams are 12-14 in ACC Tournament play. “It’s just a matter of us closing out games and making layups and free throws. Any time you get into tournament time you need to create your own breaks. You’re going to need a break here and there.”
Joseph feels the team made its own breaks and found their identity in that second game with Clemson. Missing two players — junior guard Kaylan Pugh, who was out with the flu, and Elo Edeferioka, who sat out a one-game team suspension — the Jackets prevailed in a game that saw eight ties and 10 lead changes. The last of those changes came with 4:30 left in the third quarter, as the Jackets clamped down and pulled away. A key was starting grad student Breanna Brown at the four to fill in for Edeferioka and inserting senior sharpshooter Antonia Peresson to help spread the floor, creating opportunities for leading scorers Francesca Pan (13.8, 14.3 in ACC play) and inside threat Zaire O’Neil (9.9, 10.1).
“We were two key players short in that game. We struggled with them offensively but we found a way to win,” Joseph recalled. “I feel like putting Bre and Antonia Peresson in the lineup has really helped our young players but it’s also really helped our depth, too, because now you have three seniors and a junior coming off the bench.”
The change sparked the Jackets that day and has lit what’s become a bonfire. Brown has been a force, especially on the offensive glass, while Peresson has been the long-distance threat the Jackets knew she could be. Edeferioka also responded, having grabbed 8.0 rebounds per game since sitting, with two double-digit rebounding games (she had nine in another), and a 16-10 double-double against the Seminoles.
Senior play is going to be big for the Jackets in the ACCs and further postseason.
“We definitely have to get great play out of our seniors because they’ve been there,” Joseph said. “This is their fourth ACC Tournament. They’re veterans. They know what to expect, they have to be the stabilizing, key component.”
Fletcher earned ACC All-Freshman honors, finishing her freshman campaign with 7.0 points, 5.0 rebounds and 2.1 assists (8.7, 6.0, 2.3 in ACC play). Over the last six games, she’s especially shone, going for 10.0 points and 6.3 rebounds with 2.2 assists. Cubaj has also found her legs. She averaged 2.8 points and 4.0 rebounds, with 41 steals, 21 blocks (2.3, 4.1, 18, 13 in ACC play). Over her final six games she’s put up 3.7 points — including a career-best 14 against Miami — 5.7 boards, 12 steals, and 9 blocks.
Joseph is very proud of both first-year players.
“I’ve said all season long I think they’re two of the best freshmen in the ACC,” she said. “Lorela Cubaj is, I think, one of the best defensive players in the league. A lot of things she does she doesn’t get credit for. She can guard a point guard through a center, she plays with tremendous energy and poise and confidence. It’s been fun to watch her, kind of the light come on here at the end of the season offensively.
“Kierra Fletcher, you’re a freshman point guard to come in the No. 1 league in the country and run a team, that’s asking a lot,” she continued. “I think she’s done a tremendous job of playing 30 minutes a game in this league and shooting 42 percent from the field. She rebounds. She’s had several games this year where she was our leading rebounder. You don’t see that often with your point guard. I think one of the impressive things about her is her defense and her intensity level — the way she attacks every practice and every game and leaves it all on the floor. It’s very rare that you find freshmen like Lorela Cubaj and Kierra Fletcher who can physically withstand the long ACC season.”
The Jackets are hoping for a long ACC postseason. They’ve advanced in the Tournament each of the past four years — this senior class is 3-for-3 in ACC Tournament openers — and would like to make it beyond the second round for the first time since 2012, when they made the Championship game then reached the Sweet 16 for the first time in program history.
Joseph believes this team has enough to make a long run, primarily because she has more game-tested talent at her disposal.
“I think our depth is a key,” she said. “In the past, our legs, we’d get in foul trouble playing two games in two days. But this year, having four post players rather than two and having six guards, I think that’s really made a big difference.
“We have to be able to play 10 players,” she added. “Fortunately, this is the first time I’ve ever headed into an ACC Tournament situation where we’ve had this kind of depth. I feel like we’ve got some momentum heading into postseason. We know how important our play in the ACC Tournament is to staying alive with any hope we have for postseason.”