Fearless Tilford, Yellow Jackets take out Georgia, show they’re learning how to win
By Jon Cooper
The Good Word
There are no shortcuts in learning how to win.
Sometimes, to turn the corner you just have to go for it.
For Georgia Tech women’s basketball, Sunday afternoon at McCamish Pavilion was one of those times. Tied at 45 with rival Georgia and inside of 2:30, someone had to step up and make a play.
Junior point guard Imani Tilford was that someone.
The junior sparked Georgia Tech, running the attack to perfection and scoring the game’s final five points as the Yellow Jackets topped the Bulldogs, 52-47, snapping a series five-game losing streak.
“I thought Imani Tilford was key down the stretch,” said Tech head coach MaChelle Joseph, who recorded her fourth win in the series and program’s fifth overall. “I’ve challenged these juniors that it’s time to turn the corner in their career and find a way to win and understand what it takes to win. I thought today when it counted Imani Tilford and Zaire O’Neil and Katarina Vuckovic really stepped up.”
With 2:25 left, Tilford split a pair of free throws to move the lead to two, 45-43, but more important, fouled out UGA’s junior point guard Haley Clark. With Clark gone, Tilford really took over. She grabbed the defensive rebound on the ensuing possession, then, with 1:11 remaining, blew past a Georgia defender, took it straight to the hole and hit the lay-up to push the lead to four. She’d seal the game with five seconds left, hitting a pair of free throws.
“It was definitely a good team win. We all wanted it,” said Tilford, who had eight points, five rebounds, two assists and a steal. “Everybody did their part, diving for loose balls, we got stops, it feels great to do it and get Kat [Vuckovic] the win before she leaves. We wanted to do that for her and we’re glad that we were able to do it tonight.”
Joseph was pleased, but not surprised, by Tilford’s performance.
“That’s what you expect from your junior point guard that has played over 60 games. You expect her to take charge in games like that and make plays,” said Joseph, whose team moved to 4-0 for the fifth time in her tenure and first time since 2011-12, while handing Georgia its first loss. “I told her on the bench, ‘You have to either step up to the plate and take over this game with the experience level you have or you have to let somebody else have that spot because it’s now or never!’
“We needed to learn how to win,” Joseph continued. “We’ve been right there for three years, two years with this group, three years with Kat. It’s time to go to the next step and it’s time to figure out how to win these type of games. I thought Imani responded in a really positive way.”
Tilford fearlessly went at the basket and right at Georgia’s bigs all game. She paid the price, several times getting up off the floor after getting belted on drives but kept coming back.
“I’ve always been like, ‘Attack! Attack!’” she said. “I’m not scared to get hit and get hit to the floor so I just attack all the time.”
That was especially true on her layup with 1:25 remaining that gave Tech a two-possession spread.
“I knew I had to do something for my teammates,” she said. “So I just took it to the rim. She played up on me so I just went past her.”
When Tilford wasn’t blowing past UGA’s guards on offense, she was standing in front of them on defense. She drew three key charges, two of them against 6-3 forward Caliya Robinson, who she spotted 10 inches.
“In practice we talk about getting stops, charges. We like to take four or five charges a game,” Tilford said. “So for me to step in and give them that energy, that boost-up, when I took those two charges, it was great to do. They look at me as a defensive stopper. So to get those stops for us on defense was great.”
It’s not that the size mismatch and the on-coming train she was about to step in front of didn’t enter her mind. That thought just didn’t stay there.
“I definitely do think that but I also think, ‘It’s for my teammates so I have to step in and take the charge,’” she said. “It’s going to hurt later on but it’s worth it.”
Tilford wasn’t the only Jacket spending some time in the cold tub afterward. She had company in O’Neil.
The junior forward scored a game-high 20 points on 8-of-15 shooting (with an identical 4-of-8 from the line as Tilford), with six rebounds (tied for team-lead with freshman Francesca Pan). She also took a ferocious pounding in doing so.
Joseph credited O’Neil with dominating the paint in the second half, scoring nine points with four rebounds as well as keeping the Jackets in the game in the first 20, when she scored 11 points, as Tech carried a 28-23 lead into the break.
“Zaire O’Neil was huge,” said Joseph. “Her ability to make plays with her back to the basket against three really good post players that Georgia has. I thought that it was a tale of halves for the post play. I thought Caliyah Robinson pretty much controlled the first half with her points and rebounds then I thought Zaire O’Neil controlled the second half with her points and rebounds. Zaire kept us in the game in the first half as well.
“Zaire, she was getting killed in there,” Joseph added. “They were hitting her on every possession and I thought that she bounced back and she made plays down the stretch. I think [the referees] did a good job of adjusting to that.”
The Jackets adjusted to Robinson, holding her to two points in the second half (she had 13 in the first), and down the stretch shut down UGA. They held the Bulldogs to six points on 2-for-12 shooting (0-for-3 from three) in the fourth quarter, and 0-for-9, with five turnovers over the final 7:17, after guard Shanea Armbrister hit a layup to tie the game at 43.
Tilford and O’Neil each had a steal in that time, and freshman Chanin Scott added two swipes as part of her game-high three steals.
Scott was especially troublesome to Clark, playing at the top and giving her fits. That was a key part of Tech’s plan.
“We wore her down,” said Joseph. “She went 0-for-5 from the field and fouled out. We made her work. She had to make 10 cuts to get the ball every single time and that was the game plan. See if somebody else can run their team. I thought we did a good job being disruptive.”
It was a nice first taste of the Georgia Tech-Georgia rivalry for Scott.
“I’m just so excited that we beat Georgia,” she said. “We executed everything that Coach Jo told us to do and we played as a family. We picked each other up when we were down, we played hard, we left everything on the court. I’m just happy to say we left it all out there and we won.”
The Jackets felt it was even nicer as the final taste of the rivalry for Vuckovic, who chipped in eight points, two rebounds, three assists, two steals and a block.
“It’s one of those things that when you leave Georgia Tech, 10 years from now what do you want to remember when you look back?” Joseph said. “She was my only player that played for me for four years that hadn’t beaten Georgia. She knew that going into the game. It was like, ‘This is it. You’re not getting another chance.’ So that was really important.”
“I’m really glad for Kat,” said Scott. “I’m glad that she had an opportunity to beat Georgia and go out her senior year and have that legacy that she continued the streak against Georgia and beating them. For us freshmen, she set it up for us so that we have the possibility to be 4-0 against Georgia.”
That taste of victory over their rival and winning a close game against a quality opponent will make this week’s trip to the Bahamas for the Junkanoo Jam really sweet.
“Oh, yeah. I’m EXCITED for the Bahamas,” said Scott. “We’re going to really bond as a team, we’re going to have new experiences, we’re going to learn a lot of new things about people and I’m really excited to spend time with my team, especially coming off of this win. Everyone’s going to be in a great mood, everyone’s going to be so optimistic. It’s going to be awesome.”
“It’s going to be great!” said Tilford. “We do a lot of team stuff, like snorkeling and stuff like that so I’m definitely looking forward to it. I’ve never been to the Bahamas. Going off this win is very big for us. We hope to come out with two more wins coming back.”