Dec. 15, 2014
By Jon Cooper
The Good Word
A plan is a good way to start any kind of successful endeavor.
A contingency plan exponentially increases the chances of success.
With less than a month before the start of ACC play, the plan for Georgia Tech women’s basketball is taking shape, relying on sophomore sensation Kaela Davis, senior Sydney Wallace and a strong perimeter game, which originally included freshman Zaire O’Neil providing a spark off the bench.
The contingency plan is starting O’Neil, a 5-10 forward from Newark, N.J. (Malcolm X Shabazz High School) and moving her inside where she can take root as part of the inside game.
The latter seems to be working quite well.
O’Neil was a dominant force Sunday afternoon at McCamish Pavilion, going for 24 points and 13 rebounds, her first collegiate double-double, as the Jackets, crushed the Central Arkansas, 88-50.
“It feels good knowing I can get one while my team’s also doing well,” said O’Neil, who hit 12 of her 15 field goal attempts and split her rebounds, getting seven on the offensive end and six off the defensive boards in a season-high 27 minutes. “But it’s not really about my double-double. It was a team effort that got me my double-double.”
In Tech’s first game in 10 days, since a heart-breaking 79-73 overtime loss at No. 16/16 Michigan State back on Dec. 4, the conclusion of a brutal stretch that saw Tech play four “BCS-level” teams, three ranked in the Top-25, in seven days, O’Neil made the most of her second straight start. She spent the majority of her time against the Southland Conference’s Sugar Bears in the two places head coach MaChelle Joseph would like to see her regularly the rest of the year — on the floor and in the paint.
“I think you saw tonight what an impact player she can be if she can stay out of foul trouble,” said Joseph. “She’s a phenomenal talent. It’s just a matter of being able to keep her in the game for extended minutes. In our four losses she’s only played 15 minutes a game. So it’s really important heading into ACC play that she learns how to keep herself in the game for extended periods of time without fouling.”
O’Neil had two fouls the entire game Sunday, none in the first half, as Tech raced out to a double-digit lead less than four minutes in, led by 15 at the break and by as much as 38. And it wasn’t like she was hanging out at the perimeter, which, had been the plan. Following the MSU loss that left the team at 5-4, it was time for the contingency plan.
“There’s no doubt she was going to be an impact player. We asked her to do something she wasn’t comfortable doing when she first got here and that was play on the perimeter. She was a post player all along,” said Joseph. “We’re shorthanded on the perimeter so we asked her to play out of position. Finally, after evaluating where we were after those four losses we realized we couldn’t wait a year to put her inside. We had to go ahead and put her inside now and be shorthanded on the perimeter and make adjustments. Obviously, we’re counting very heavily on our perimeter players in Kaela Davis, Sydney Wallace and Antonia Peresson.”
The trio of Davis, Wallace and Peresson combined to go 7-for-16 from behind the arc (the team was 7-for-19). Davis was especially sharp, hitting four of her eight attempts — and spread it around, hitting one from the left side, one from dead on and two from the right.
“Kaela makes it look easy. She makes the game slow down,” said Joseph. “It looks like everyone else is playing so hard and she makes the game look slow. That’s just her ability. She’s very patient, she picks and chooses her spots. I thought she did a really good job of getting the ball to the other players and getting her teammates involved tonight and taking shots when we needed her to but I thought she played within herself and she didn’t force anything.”
The person who did force things was O’Neil, who was devastating inside, as the Jackets finished with a 54-12 edge in points in paint and an 18-4 edge in second-chance points.
“I think when Roddreka Rogers is touching the ball and Zaire O’Neil is touching the ball inside, it takes the pressure off our perimeter players,” said Joseph. “They don’t have to do as much and the defense collapses a little bit instead of getting wider and wider for our perimeter players.”
While Rogers only got off four shots (making two), a number Joseph would like to see go up — she puts that on Rogers and her need to be more assertive — the output from O’Neil is right on, as she’s shot better than 50 percent in six straight games and in nine of Tech’s 10 games.
Joseph sites O’Neil starting to come around physically.
“She’s getting in shape,” Joseph said. “In November and December, it’s tough to play BCS-level games as a freshman because they’re not at the conditioning level. Most of the those teams are playing juniors and seniors that have been in the weight room for four years. I think that’s one of the things for Zaire. She’s just finally getting in playing shape.”
Zaire likes the start she’s off to and starting, period, but she isn’t hung up on being a starter. Her endgame is focused on the end of the game.
“It’s exciting but the starting lineup isn’t really what matters to me,” she said. “It’s about who’s in the game at the end and I want to be the one Coach counts on at the end of the game.”
Regardless of the plan for her, be it starting or closing, Zaire plans to keep doing what she does, finishing at the rim and cleaning up on the glass, and doing it where she’s at her best, in the paint.
She also expects more days like Sunday.
“I feel like that every day,” O’Neil said. “I try to make myself feel like every day is `that day’ for me so I can come out and play hard. I’m going to keep attacking until they stop it.”
It may be time for opposing coaches to re-think their plan.
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