Jackets Look to Bounce Back
Young Jackets make progress despite losses to Nos. 7 Notre Dame, 13 Duke
By Jon Cooper
The Good Word
Playing in the ACC means playing Notre Dame and Duke.
Georgia Tech women’s basketball coach MaChelle Joseph knows that and is fine with it.
What Joseph has regrets over is that her young team had to meet them in the first and second games of ACC play.
“We’re a team in transition. If we’d have played these two games in February instead of the first of January I think they’d be different outcomes, honestly,” said Joseph, following the 76-68 loss to No. 13/15 Duke at McCamish Pavilion, which, on the heels of Monday night’s 55-38 loss to No. 7 Notre Dame dropped the Jackets to 0-2 in the conference and 11-4 overall. “I’m sure Duke and Notre Dame are glad they got out of here in January because these young kids and these new kids that have been sitting out that we’re just now getting back into the mix are really going to start coming together over the next three weeks. I’m really excited to see where we’re going to go.”
That destination will begin by climbing out of a 0-2 ACC hole. While uncommon for Joseph teams, (this only the third time) it’s not unprecedented, as the Yellow Jackets started 0-4 in conference last season but finished with a flourish to wind up 8-8. More uncommon is the 0-2 home start, the first in four years and completely unprecedented is opening conference play with back-to-back ranked teams.
Of course, having seven players new to ACC play on the roster — four of those freshmen — also is something new for Joseph, and something that can be considered both a blessing and a curse.
The curse is the inexperience, which reared its head against the perennial powerhouses they saw, especially Thursday night, when Duke’s redshirt junior backcourt of Lexie Brown (a game-high 25, four assists, seven steals) and Rebecca Greenwell (second with 17), carried the Blue Devils, scoring 20 of Duke’s 40 second-half points and hitting five of six free throws to ice the game.
The blessing came in the fight the youthful Jackets put up and the dynamic play from up-and-comers freshman guard Francesca Pan and sophomore Kaylan Pugh.
Pan came out firing, scoring Tech’s first eight points, on 3-for-4 shooting (2-for-2 from three) and finishing with 23 points and nine rebounds. The 23-points marked Pan’s first double-digit game in her last four games played (she also sat the non-conference finale), and was only two points off her career-high, set back on Nov. 25 against Dayton at the Junkanoo Jam in the Bahamas. She also led the Jackets with nine rebounds (four offensive, five defensive).
Joseph was pleased to see Pan’s return to form.
“I was really proud of the way she persevered tonight, pushed through and came close to a double-double,” said Joseph. “I thought that she did what I knew she’s been capable of doing all year long. We’ve been like, `Where has she been since the Bahamas?’ So it’s good to be getting her back right now.”
Pugh isn’t a freshman — she played some last season at Ohio State — but also is new to ACC play. The fiery 5-9 sophomore looked anything but intimidated or wide-eyed.
She scored 17 points on 8-of-9 shooting, with most of the shots going right to the hole and at Duke’s bigs, including senior forward Oderah Chidum, the ACC’s leading shot-blocker, who collected four of Duke’s nine blocks on the night. Pugh also pulled down six rebounds (three on each end) and made five steals resulting in six points — cashing in the three steals herself.
“She just plays hard. She filled the stat sheet,” said Joseph. “She got it done. It’s been a long time since I’ve seen somebody go 8-for-9.
“I felt like Kaylan Pugh was an impact player from the time I recruited her until the time she transferred here to Georgia Tech,” Joseph added. “I just knew it was going to take some time. Kaylan Pugh is starting to get in the flow of things offensively and defensively.”
Guard Cha’Ron Sweeney, yet another first-year Jacket (she’s a grad student), also came up big, hitting some big shots, specifically three fourth-quarter threes that pumped life back into the Jackets, with two of them coming early in the quarter after the Blue Devils had jumped out to a 12-point lead, their biggest of the night.
“I was proud of Cha’Ron Sweeney,” Joseph said. “When [Antonia Peresson] has struggled in the past we haven’t had anyone that could come in and give us a lift in three-point shooting and I thought she did that tonight.”
The area Joseph felt needed more production was up front with forwards Zaire O’Neil and Elo Edeferioka. O’Neil fouled out with six points and two rebounds — she did have one emphatic block, an assist and a steal — in 23 minutes while Edeferioka had two points and three rebounds in 15 minutes.
“I feel like Elo and Zaire are two of the best post players in the ACC,” Joseph said. “I feel like we have to have better production out of them.”
The Jackets still hung with Duke on the boards, outrebounding the Blue Devils, 34-32, and dominating the offensive glass, 20-8, but managed only an 11-5 edge in second-chance points. They were outscored 34-21 in the paint.
Joseph feels that youth is starting to come together.
“Pan didn’t play two games ago and Anne (Francoise) Diouf is just coming in,” she said. “Seven of our 11 players are first-year players. It’s going to take some time to get some chemistry going.”
With a few days to practice until the next game — Tech next takes the floor Jan. 12 at Boston College — the Jackets will have some time to practice and improve that chemistry. While it will be nice to see a team without a low-number rank in front of their name, Joseph doesn’t see the Eagles as a break in the schedule.
“I don’t think there’s any break in the ACC schedule this year. Eight teams of the 14 are ranked in the top 25,” she said. “What we’ve got to do is bounce back. We have to come in and get ready for Boston College because they’re a quality team and it’s on the road. It’s tough to win up there, especially with young kids.”
The Jackets have won six of the last seven against the Eagles and two of the last three in Conte Forum. It’s an edge but one Joseph feels is negligible.
“It is (nice) but again, seven of our players have never been to Boston, let alone Boston College,” she said, with a laugh. “We have to go up there with seven new players and we’re on a journey. I’m telling you, in February this will be a very good basketball team.”