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#TGW: Reflection

By Matt Winkeljohn | The Good Word

Elizabeth Balogun seems nice enough, yet she was trending too selflessly early in the season, so Georgia Tech head coach Machelle Joseph told her in so many words, “Ignore what I said, and score more.”

The freshman has taken the cue, and it’s working out nicely for the women’s basketball team.

So, when the Yellow Jackets (10-3) open ACC play Thursday night at Boston College (11-2) they’ll be all the more likely to beat the Eagles for a seventh straight time with their lean, long scoring machine lighting it up.

When you average 20 points a game, as Balogun has over the past five after putting up 11.1 in the first eight games, there’s got to be a back story. Here it is:

Balogun came to The Flats as a McDonald’s All-American from Memphis, and she bought in 100 percent when the coach said, “We’re going to run our offense through the middle,” and then the boss gave her separate marching orders.

At first, she complied completely, passing the ball frequently into the paint and taking 9.6 shots per game over the first eight. Then, there was a coach-to-player chat – a re-engineering of sorts — and in five games since, Balogun’s averaging 16.2 shots and has picked up a pair of ACC Rookie of the Week awards.

“It’s a big difference because at first she emphasized passed balls to the post, so I didn’t really know if I could score . . . just pass the ball to the post,” Balogun said after leading the Jackets with 24 points on 10-of-16 shooting in Sunday’s 81-40 blowout of Wofford in McCamish Pavilion.

“But she talked to me and told me she really wanted me to score, so I kind of like changed my game and now I’m doing both.”

The Jackets have the tools to play an all-encompassing brand of basketball, but it should not be surprising that Joseph would make a Power Point of working the rock through the paint.

Most teams at most levels seek the same.

Freshman post player Elizabeth Dixon, another McDonald’s All-American, is averaging 10.3 points on 55.3 percent shooting, and sophomore pivot Lorela Cubaj has been a force waiting to awaken, like she did against Wofford with her second career double-double. She scored 13, grabbed 12 rebounds, and dished out a team-high five assists to keep the offense moving.

On the face, it looks like the Jackets gained much in their final non-conference game, although Wofford (7-7) didn’t provide much resistance. Tech took a 19-0 lead, but that mattered less than the Jackets moving on from their previous game, a mystifying 85-66 loss to Dayton (5-6) on Dec. 21 in the West Palm Beach (Fla.) Invitational.

The Flyers took 33 free throws in the second half of that one, making 27, and Balogun, Kierra Fletcher and Lotta-Maj Lahtinen all fouled out in a game that the Jackets lost despite outscoring Dayton 40-12 in the paint.

It was a tough was to go into the holiday break with nine days off before an opportunity to erase the memory of the mess. Every game where you’re outscored by 25 at the free throw line would qualify, which is why Joseph said she and her team have been {ticked} and that she watched the film three times in search of explanation.

“We just had to come out there and redeem ourselves because that’s not who we are,” Balogun said upon reflection after the Wofford game. “We’re better than that; we could have won that game.”

Joseph will not go away from the emphasis of moving the ball into the paint, and Cubaj was a good example why in the Wofford game.

She connected on 6-of-9 shots, and even made a 3-pointer from the right wing in the second half. Cubaj looked like she was at home. She wasn’t, of course, but her parents, Spartak and Resmjie Neziri, are in town and will be for almost another week.

“There’s not a lot of games in the last two years where Francesca Pan could go 1-for-9 and we would score 80 points, so I’m really pleased with our offensive balance,” Joseph said. “I told [Cubaj] after the game that maybe her parents should move here because every time they’re in town she plays her best basketball.”

The Jackets look to be playing their best offensive basketball with Balogun shooting more frequently, which she has in putting up consecutive game totals of 18, 15, 30, 13 and 24 points plus totals of 6, 8, 6, 7, and 8 rebounds.

She averaged 2.9 rebounds per game in the eight before she turned loose her shot.

“I sat down and talked to her about what her role was with this team, and . . . I think it really cleared some things up for her because she was hesitating,” Joseph said. “We pretty much gave her the green light, and ever since we did that, she’s been really comfortable finding her shots and obviously she’s an elite scorer . . . We’ve been able to find her groove.”

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