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#TGW: Just Shoot, Baby

Jan. 18, 2014

By Jon Cooper

The Good Word

Next Game: Today, at No. 6 Maryland – Comcast Center, 2 p.m. ET
The Series: Maryland leads, 47-18, 25-4 at home. Georgia Tech has lost four straight and eight of the last 10, but four of those losses were by four-or-fewer points and only one game has been by more than 10 points. In fact, 12 of the last 13 games between the schools have been decided by 10-or-fewer points. In the MaChelle Joseph Era, Tech is 4-13, but the Terps’ average margin of victory is 7.3 points. The Yellow Jackets’ victory margin is 3.3.
Coverage: WREK, 91.1 FM (Live stats are available on RamblinWreck.com)

Katarina Vuckovic has pretty much always done things her way.

The Smeredevo, Serbia, native came from a volleyball family — her father, Aleksandar, was a professional volleyball player — and she grew up tall, athletic and competitive.

All signs seemingly pointed toward a legacy on the volleyball court.

But, as kids do, Katarina acted out and at age 11, when opportunity presented itself, she went her own way.

“I gave up volleyball,” she recalled. “I tried playing volleyball but some people came to my school and said they were opening a basketball school for young girls. So I gave it a shot.

“I didn’t really enjoy it in the beginning,” she added. “But [her coaches] said that I was talented so I just stayed with it.”

Her persistence paid off, as she made the Serbian U16 team that participated in the 2010 European Championships. Two years later she helped Serbia win a bronze in the U18 European Championships, shooting 58.7 percent, 75.0 from the line.

She continued improving her game, adding three-point shooting, and last year, as a power forward with her club team, Crvena Zvezda, Vuckovic was second on the team in scoring (11.2 ppg), shooting nearly 55 percent (23 percent from three) and 83 percent from the line, as Crvena had a league-best 22-3 record.

Those offensive numbers whet the appetite of Coach MaChelle Joseph, who recruited the 6-3 forward to Georgia Tech. Joseph hasn’t yet seen the kind of offensive numbers from Vuckovic that she showed in Europe, partly because of an injury but also because she’s preferred passing to shooting.

“My passing is what I always look for first,” she said, adding with a laugh. “I know it’s bad and that Coach wants me to shoot more.”

Problem is, not only has Vuckovic remained in love with passing first, her teammates have found themselves enamored with her passing as well.

“I just love playing with her,” said senior guard Ty Marshall. “Kat’s a great passer. She’s very unselfish. We had a couple of games where we had a couple of passes where I sliced off of her and she’s hit me for an and-one or a two-point play. As soon as she makes the pass or somebody scores she just smiles and it gives you such a boost.

“Of course we want her to take shots,” she added.

Marshall is echoing orders for Vuckovic to shoot more coming from the top.

“In Serbia she wasn’t known as a scorer. She was known as a passer, believe it or not,” said Joseph. “She has tremendous touch with the ball but it’s just a matter of her understanding that we want her to take shots. She’s making that transition. Right now she’s catching the ball thinking, `Pass.’ She needs to be catching the ball thinking, `Shoot.'”

Making it harder to convince Vuckovic to think “shoot first” is the cast of talented scorers around her. Options like Marshall, Kaela Davis and Sydney Wallace make turning down an opportunity to pass difficult to pass up.

“It’s great. I’m having fun. I think we play good together,” she said. “I think maybe in the beginning it was hard to change my mindset.”

But she’s starting to and it’s starting to pay off.

In the Yellow Jackets’ last game, a 79-63 rout of Wake Forest Thursday night at McCamish Pavilion, Vuckovic put up seven shots, matching her ACC-high (her career-best is nine) and made five of them, a career-best 71.4 percentage. She matched her career-high for field goals made and, with 10 points, came within one of tying her career-best.

The Wake game raised her shooting percentage to 50 percent (11-for-22) in ACC play and 60 percent (9-for-15) in the three games since her conference debut against Duke, when she shot 2-for-7.

In the game against the Blue Devils, she showed that even when her shots don’t fall she’s committed to contributing in other ways. She grabbed three rebounds (two off the offensive glass), handed out two assists — one a highlight-reel, no-look pass to Marshall for an and-one layup — making a steal and blocking a shot in 18 minutes.

She built off that game in the ensuing game at Clemson, hitting 2-of-3 shots, making her first 3-pointer in ACC play then filling out her stat line with three rebounds, an assist, two blocks and three steals in 17 minutes.

Vuckovic continues to improve, entering today’s game with a seven-game streak of hitting at least two field goals — a streak that began on Dec. 21 against No. 13/16 Oklahoma State in the Puerto Rico Classic. In that time she’s shot at least 37 percent in six games.

She hit for two field goals once in her first five games this season and didn’t shoot better than 33 percent in any of her them.

Joseph blames the slow start on a knee injury that cost Vuckovic valuable practice time and the season-opener.

“I think her sitting out for that month with that injury delayed her growth and development,” Joseph said. “She’s just now getting back in the flow of things and understanding her role. It’s just a matter of her getting her confidence.”

Vuckovic is playing with confidence in her role coming off the bench and contributing by playing with energy and passion.

That role won’t be a problem as that has always been her style.

“I love playing basketball. You have to have energy to play the game,” she said. “I’m definitely looking to make it to the NCAA Tournament and to do good in the ACC Tournament. Those are our goals for this year.”

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