Guard Kaylan Pugh powering up, bringing the fight for Yellow Jackets
By Jon Cooper
The Good Word
Toughness is relative.
For Georgia Tech sophomore guard Kaylan Pugh, those relatives were her cousins.
“Growing up in my family I always played with boys outside — football, everything,” said the 5-9 guard from Memphis, Tenn. “I have so many cousins. They’re all boys. If I could do that I can do this.”
‘This’ refers not only to playing college basketball at the ACC level but playing it at a level of intensity so high that it’s starting to set her apart after only four games with the Yellow Jackets.
Heading into Thursday night’s game at Boston College (tip-off at Conte Forum is at 7 p.m.), Pugh is tied for second on the team in scoring (10.5 ppg), leads the team in shooting (51.5 percent), and ranks fourth in rebounds per game (4.0 rpg), despite ranking seventh in minutes played (20.0 mpg).
Watch for the minutes per game to continue to go up, with the other stats likely to follow.
A good omen might have been the Jackets’ last game, last Thursday against No. 13/15 Duke at McCamish Pavilion. Pugh was heroic in defeat, coming off the bench to score 17 points and grab six rebounds in only 17 minutes, making eight of nine field goal attempts, including her final eight attempts.
All of her makes were layups, with four of them coming off either a steal (she had a team-high-tying five of those) or a defensive board (she had three of those, second only to Francesca Pan’s five). Pugh pushed the pace, fearlessly going to the rim and often challenging players she spotted as much as six, even seven inches.
“She just plays hard,” said Georgia Tech head coach MaChelle Joseph. “She had five steals. She filled the stat sheet. She got it done. It’s been a long time since I’ve seen somebody go 8-for-9.”
Pugh couldn’t remember the last time she had such a game, either.
“I really don’t know,” she said, modestly, then even more modestly, deflected the credit, adding, “Really it’s Coach Jo. She puts me in situations where I can go 8-for-9. She’s a great coach when it comes to setting people up to succeed.”
Those situations have come up more and more since Pugh was activated following her transfer from Ohio State, where she played six games her freshman season and she’s making the most of them.
The eight field goals against Duke were one fewer than she had in her first three games, when she shot 9-of- 24, making three field goals in each game.
There must have been an 8-for-9 game — or something similar — in Pugh’s past, as she dominated the high school level at St. Mary’s Episcopal School, where she scored 2,700 points for her career, was TSSAA Division II Miss Basketball as a senior (29.2 ppg, 6.0 rpg, and 3.0 apg) — she’d been a finalist for the award each of her first three seasons — and was the leading scorer in the state of Tennessee her sophomore, junior and senior seasons. During the summer of 2014, she led her AAU team, the Tennessee Flight, to the semifinals at Nike Nationals, scoring 14.7 points and pulling in a tournament-high 11.1 rebounds.
Her exploits got Joseph’s attention, who tried to bring Kaylan to the Flats.
But Pugh chose Ohio State over Tech, her runner-up, and traditional power Tennessee.
“I just wanted something to be different,” she said. “Do what you want, not what other people want you to do.”
After her freshman season, Pugh decided she wanted to come back to be closer to her family. She found the same warm reception from Joseph that she’d received during the original recruiting process.
“It meant a lot,” Pugh said. “I was really glad to see her open her arms to the program for me.”
Due to transfer rules, Pugh couldn’t make her Georgia Tech debut until Dec. 22 at Middle Tennessee State, but she justified Joseph’s faith in her during practice and wowed her teammates, showing them the potential she could offer once she got on the court.
“Kaylan’s going to be a really big part,” said point guard Imani Tilford back on Dec. 3, following the Jackets’ win over Georgia State. “If she comes in and does what we see her do every day in practice, she’s going to be a really big threat.”
That threat is here and growing.
So is Joseph’s confidence in Pugh. The belief that she will fit nicely at Georgia Tech is based on precedent.
“If you look back, the players we’ve had here from Memphis have been highly successful — starting with Deja Foster, Aaliyah Whiteside, now Kaylan Pugh,” Joseph said. “Those kids from Memphis have done very well here academically, have done very well here, obviously, on the court.
“I felt like Kaylan Pugh was an impact player from the time I recruited her until the time she transferred here to Georgia Tech,” she added. “I just knew it was going to take some time. Seven of our 11 players are first-year players. It’s going to take some time to get some chemistry going.”
Pugh feels the team bonding and with lots of time left in the ACC schedule and the Jackets having proved they can play with the conference’s best, she’s eager to be part of the journey toward the NCAA Tournament.
“Coach Jo has been helping me, getting me acclimated with the offense so I feel more comfortable just playing,” she said. “It was a tough adjustment but overall it’s been great. Everybody’s been very helpful. The biggest change is probably just the environment. The team is different. I love it.”