By Matt Winkeljohn
The Good Word
If the look of Zaire O’Neil is taken as a predictor, then Georgia Tech fans are going to enjoy women’s basketball because the junior forward can hardly stop smiling when talking about a season that’s one week away.
She looks better on the court, too, and when the Yellow Jackets tip off Friday at 5:30 p.m. against Samford in McCamish Pavilion, O’Neil won’t be the only player who’s cranked up her game. There’s going to be plenty different about Tech.
Junior point guard Imani Tilford has polished up her jumper, and the infusion of three transfers and four freshmen may afford head coach MaChelle Joseph more talent and energy to work with than in a few years.
“Every one of the 14 players brings something unique to the table and we all work really well together,” O’Neil said. “I think it starts off the court. We really enjoy each other.”
The Jackets won’t easily replace the scoring and all-around play of Aaliyah Whiteside, nor the grit and rebounding of Roddreka Rogers. They graduated, and the departures of senior Irene Gari and point guard Ciani Cryor left spots as well.
After playing 24 games last season, however, O’Neil is likely to offer more. Joseph has complimented Zaire’s re-made physique, the spring in her step and the force with which she’s been practicing. It wasn’t there after she missed the first nine games last fall following knee surgery in the spring of 2015.
The 5-foot-11 player who averaged 6.6 points and 2.9 rebounds last season has streamlined herself. With the help of strength and conditioning coach Scott McDonald, this version of O’Neil may top the freshman edition who averaged 11.3 and 5.8 while starting 21 games and playing in 31.
“Last season I played through a lot of pain,” O’Neil said. “I might have rushed it a little bit, but I actually took some time off this summer where I did more physical training but not as much running so I gave my knees a break.
“I’m feeling good, like the old Zaire but in better shape. I had to lose weight, get better eating habits, really focus. The only way to become the leader that I need to be is by showing that I can improve.”
Add Tilford to that list.
The 5-5 junior from Greenburgh, N.Y., averaged 4.7 points and 1.8 assists in 33 games and 21 starts last season.
Challenged by Joseph to become a better scorer, she spent countless hours in the gym pumping jumpers.
There is plenty of new and interesting company with Tilford in the backcourt.
Sophomore Kaylan Pugh (5-9) is a particularly aggressive guard. Cha’Ron Sweeney (5-2) will play right away after graduating from Eastern Michigan. She’s a blur, goes to the free throw line frequently and digs in as a defender. After setting the EMU freshman scoring record with 556 points to earn MAC Freshman of the Year honors, she averaged 17.6 points, 3.7 assists, 3.9 rebounds and 2.0 steals per game in three seasons with the Eagles.
The tandem of Tilford and Sweeney should allow junior Antonia Peresson (5-9) to work at shooting guard, which is more natural for the team’s top 3-point shooter.
Joseph believes that Tech’s four freshmen, including guard Zutorya Cook (5-7) and forward Anne Francoise Diouf (6-4), can with work come to be considered among her top recruiting classes. They have plenty to learn first.
“I would say there’s a lot more structure,” Scott said of the transition to college. “In AAU or high school, you could just make a lot more athletic plays . . . When we first got here, [coaches] really made the freshmen focus on defense because we play several different defenses and have very specific ways that you’re supposed to execute.
“It’s still very challenging, but I embrace it because it has helped me become mentally stronger. I don’t take things as personally anymore.”
Diouf won’t be the only Jacket with size, new or old.
They’re battling junior Elo Edeferioka (6-2) to play alongside O’Neil.
Edeferioka was sidelined last season after transferring from Hofstra, where the Nigerian native was nearly a double-digit rebounder in each of two campaigns.
Diouf is trying to work her way into the mix.
“There’s a lot of attention to detail and I’ve been focused on getting stronger and adjusting to the speed of the game in college,” she said. “For me, I’m doing everything that I can to compete in practice every day because coach said we need our freshmen to be ready to play.”