Feb. 20, 2016
By Matt Winkeljohn | The Good Word
They’ve had some time to think about it, yet the Georgia Tech women didn’t need a bye to realize that it’s time to step up if they want to stretch their season.
At 15-11 and 5-8 in the ACC, the Yellow Jackets’ path has become more clear. Details are not exact, but they need to make noise over their next three games and in the conference tournament to play beyond that. Work resumes Sunday at Duke (18-10, 7-7 ACC), Thursday at Pitt (12-14, 4-9) and in the regular season finale Feb. 28 against Wake Forest (15-12, 6-8).
An NCAA tournament bid remains possible, or a Women’s NIT may be out there, yet there’s no more time to fret about youth. Old heads must prevail, and youngsters need to play like grown-ups.
The Blue Devils won’t make this easy.
Tech senior Aaliyah Whiteside leads the ACC with a 20.2 point scoring average, but Duke’s Azura Stevens (19.1) is on her heels and in the Jackets’ way.
The 6-foot-6 sophomore forward/guard from Raleigh, who last summer led the U.S. Women’s Under-19 squad to a world championship, does more than score. She leads the ACC in rebounding (9.39) and is second in blocked shots (2.22).
She’s in the way of the Jackets’ plans.
“Our goal is to finish .500 in the league, and we have an opportunity to do that,” said head coach MaChelle Joseph. “Our next game at Duke is going to be really tough. With a young team, it’s hard to get them to stay the course, but I think we’ve got some great opportunities.”
Whiteside has been by the Jackets’ most consistent player, and fellow senior Rodreeka Rogers is rounding into form. The forward has not matched the 9.9 rebounds per game she pulled down last season while grabbing the second-most in program history (335), yet she’s averaged 10.8 boards over the past four.
Before putting up 10 points and pulling seven rebounds in limited time against Clemson, she had double-doubles against Syracuse (10/13) and Miami (15/14). Rogers has 22 double-doubles in her career, second among active ACC players.
“I like to rebound; it’s what I do. Every game, it’s my goal to get as many rebounds as I can,” Rogers said. “I would just say it’s effort…rebounding is always an emphasis.”
In Whiteside, Rogers and forward Katrina Vuckovic, the Jackets have three seniors they’d like to count on yet Tech will need more to move past the ACC tournament.
There are prospects.
Freshman point guard Ciani Cryor scored 18 points with three assists Jan. 10 at Florida State. Then, she scored 11 points over her next six games with four shutouts.
The Jackets will take the eight points and six assists she added against Clemson, against whom Cryor made 2-of-4 3-pointers in what Joseph called “one of her best games.”
Add sophomore forward Zaire O’Neil to the watch list. After missing the first third of the regular season while recovering from anterior cruciate knee ligament surgery, she looked more like her freshman self against Clemson.
O’Neil flashed back while scoring 12 points on 3-of-5 shooting (and 6-of-6 at the free throw line) with some deft and aggressive moves in the post. She added three rebounds, three assists, two blocked shots and two steals in 19 minutes.
“We made a tape of her and showed her how she’s jumping off one leg on her shots and that’s why she’s missing,” Joseph said. “I think she really realized that she’s favoring that knee with a brace on so I thought [Sunday] she was more solid around the basket, jumping off both legs.”
Whiteside led five Jackets in double figures with 13 points against Clemson.
That’s a good notion, balance. Tech will need more than a couple players pulling their weight, “So we can play longer,” Rogers said. “It’s helping us out. At the end of the day, whatever it takes.”
It will take a group effort to stretch the season, and the second bye of the ACC schedule came at a good time. Beyond mending bumps and bruises, the Jackets have had a chance to dial in on essentials.
“We’ve [had] a bye week to take care of rest and nagging injuries,” Joseph said. “I really think this is coming at a good time for us because of the way Georgia Tech is structured; this [was] a big test week so it’s really important that our kids have a chance to get their bearings before the ACC tournament…
“We finish .500 in the league, win a couple games in the conference tournament, you don’t know what’s going to happen. It’s not over until it’s over.”