Feb. 27, 2015
By Jon Cooper
The Good Word
Kaela Davis was emotional on the court as the team hugged its lone senior, Sydney Wallace, following the final buzzer of Thursday night’s 71-62 win over No. 16 Duke on Senior Night at McCamish Pavilion.
It might have brought back memories for Davis, who probably was emotional the last time Georgia Tech beat Duke. Of course, following that win — on Feb. 27, 1994, when Tech beat Duke, 61-56, at Alexander Memorial Coliseum — she’d have been crying for a different reason, as she was about 13 months old.
Davis scored a game-high 24 points for the second straight game and added seven rebounds and Roddreka Rogers pulled down 13 rebounds, including a game-high-tying six off the offensive glass, as the Jackets led by double-digits for much of the game then held off the Blue Devils to exorcise their 37-game losing streak and give Coach MaChelle Joseph her first win over Duke.
“I think it’s a huge deal for us, especially for a young team with no seniors,” said Joseph, who had been 0-16 against Duke. “We have nine players and seven of our nine players are freshmen or sophomores. So for them to be able to beat a program with that history and tradition, it’s something we haven’t been able to do for a long, long time. It’s a great boost of confidence.
“I’ve said all year long once our team won one of these they’d be able to figure it out and turn the corner because winning breeds winning,” she continued. “Once you figure out how to beat a program like Duke, then you get the confidence going into any game. You understand what it takes to get there and do it. You don’t know what you don’t know and these underclassmen, it’s the first time they’ve had a chance to experience this. Once you get a taste of it then you want more of it. It’s hard to explain that to somebody. You have to experience it to understand it.”
It’s understandable that this young team wouldn’t know anything about beating Duke, as only five players on the roster were even BORN the last time it happened.
But Thursday night was special. The Yellow Jackets weren’t going to let the streak reach 38, were going to get Coach Jo that first win over Duke and, most important were going to send Wallace out with a win on her night — it should be noted that Georgia Tech has filed an appeal with the NCAA for a medical redshirt for Wallace, who graduates in May.
“It was great. It was indescribable,” said Wallace, dressed in a black Georgia Tech sweat suit, who has continued to be with the team for every practice and every game. “I’m so happy and proud of them for the way that they played tonight. I’m really happy my teammates truly went out there and played for me on my Senior Night despite the fact that I couldn’t be out there with them and fight with them.”
“That meant everything. That was our initiative coming into it,” said Davis. “It was her night and she couldn’t play. We just put it all out there on the floor and let her know we were going to get the win for her. She couldn’t play so it was up to us to get the job done.”
Davis came out smoking, hitting four of her first six shots, as the Yellow Jackets spotted Duke the first four points then went on a 23-6 run to open a 13-point lead. They’d take a 33-19 lead into the break, holding Duke to 20.6 percent shooting, only 1-for-10 from three and limiting senior forward Elizabeth Williams, a Tech tormenter over her career to two points on 1-for-6 shooting.
The first half went just the way Tech, which played a triangle-and-two defensively, drew it up.
“We were chasing their two guards in a faceguard and we were in a triangle-like zone with the posts,” said Joseph. “We basically decided we were going to take away their best shooters, their playmakers and try to see with their three post players because they’re so big and it was going to be so hard to guard them man-to-man with our undersized post players. So we felt like the best thing we could do was take away [Rebecca] Greenwall their three-point shooter and take their point guard, their decision-maker kind of out of it and force their post players to shoot jump shots.
“[Williams] is a hard match-up for anybody but when you have two undersized post players, that’s why we thought we had to go to a triangle-and two. We were able to get some help and make her a passer. That was our goal, that she has to pass and not turn and power the ball up and get and-ones. So I thought we did a pretty good job trying to keep the ball out of her hands.”
Duke made adjustments, getting their bigs short jumpers in the paint, leading to a substantial 42-24 edge in points in the paint but Duke had to work for everything, getting only 16 second-chance points off 24 offensive rebounds, and was outscored 19-16 on second-chance points. Joseph credited Rogers and freshman forward Zaire O’Neil.
“Roddreka is going up against 6-5, 6-4, 6-3 and she’s 5-11 and she gets 13 rebounds, that says a lot about her heart and her hustle,” said Joseph. “I’ve never seen a rebounder like Roddreka Rogers. It’s not really about technique. It’s about her going and getting the basketball.
“I thought [Zaire] was struggling a little bit tonight but she made a key basket over the top of Elizabeth Williams, which most people don’t score over the top of Elizabeth Williams, when they were making that run at us and then she came up with the big block down there on the defensive end,” Joseph added. “She’s really grown up as a player on both ends of the floor. For an undersized post she plays pretty big inside.”
Fittingly, however, on a night celebrating Wallace’s career as one of Georgia Tech’s best three-point shooters, it was the three-point shot that made the difference.
Tech, which came in shooting 27.1 percent, shot 38.1, 8-for-21, with four different players making a three-point field goal, while Duke, which came in shooting 33.9 percent (fourth in the ACC), finished shooting 16.7, going 3-for-18 — two of those coming in the final minute to cut the lead to seven.
“I think where we won the game tonight was at the three-point line. We won the game because we made threes,” said Joseph. “You can’t beat Duke’s zone if you can’t hit outside shots.”
“We made some clutch shots when we needed to to stop their runs,” she added. “Those were shots we weren’t able to hit against Notre Dame or Miami. We were able to knock them down tonight. Katarina Vuckovic hit a big shot from the corner when they were making a run at us and Antonia Peresson with her bank shot with the clock running down, sometimes you’re good, sometimes you’re lucky but I thought tonight our players just stepped up and made plays when they had to.”
Sometimes there was an element of luck involved, as both junior forward Aaliyah Whiteside and freshman point Peresson fired up desperation threes that banked in, just beating the buzzer. On a defensive possession in the first half, Williams and teammate Erin Mathias seemed to be playing taps around the basket, with Mathias missing a short jumper then Williams misfiring on a pair of shots right at the rim.
But Tech also made hustle plays. Freshman point Imani Tilford doggedly pursued Greenwall the length of the court, eventually running her down and swiping the ball away from behind as the Duke guard was about to head into the lane for a lay-up.
They made plays late, as O’Neil made a crucial block on Kendall Cooper with the lead at eight. The resulting shot-clock violation preceded Vuckovic’s huge three-pointer from the corner with 1:48 left to push the lead back to 11.
With 23 seconds left, following an O’Neil missed free throw, and Tech holding on, up seven, Davis refused to give up on the play, ran up behind Cooper and took the ball away. She’d get fouled and made two free throws to put the game away. With one game left in the regular season, Saturday at Wake Forest (a 2 p.m. tip-off), the Jackets appear to have found out who they are and where they can go.
“We kind of took our punches early on,” said Davis. “I think we’re figuring each other out a lot more. I’ve always been told it’s not necessarily where you start it’s more how you finish. We’re finishing off the right way, the right tempo and energy. We’re playing the right way going into the tournament.
This win going into the ACC Tournament gives us confidence,” she added. “We can look back on this game and say, ‘Hey, we figured out a way to get by Duke. We can figure out a way to fight against anybody.’”
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