The Good Word
By Jon Cooper
Francesca Pan has never lacked motivation.
The senior small forward from Bassano del Grappa, Italy, hasn’t gotten to where she is — ACC Freshman of the Year, back-to-back placement on the preseason watch list for the Cheryl Miller Award, as top small forward in women’s D-I college basketball — without it.
On Sunday afternoon, when Pan leads Georgia Tech onto the floor of Stegeman Coliseum to face archrival Georgia (tipoff is at 2 p.m.), she will be motivated like never before.
It isn’t just that it’s Georgia Tech’s next game — something that’s always the case.
It’s not just because it’s Georgia or that it’s her last time playing them. Yeah, that is big and adds fuel to the fire, but it still isn’t her biggest motivating factor.
What’s driving Pan hardest about Sunday in Athens is the unique opportunity pending for the Jackets program and herself.
“We’re going to go to Georgia with a lot of motivation because if we win it will be the first time in Georgia Tech history that we win in Athens,” said Pan, who sits second in the ACC in scoring (20.5 ppg), ninth in three-point field goal shooting (.409), tied for the lead in three-point field goals made (9) and three-pointers made in a game (6).
Georgia Tech women’s basketball doesn’t have a lot to hang its hat on in the series with UGA. Tech has won only six times in 41 games, having started 0-for-24. But things look to be on the uptick.
The Jackets have won two-of-three for the third time since recording that initial win on Dec. 27, 2002 and have an opportunity to accomplish two things they never have in the series — record a win in Athens and, with it, a winning streak in the series.
Pan badly wants both. Personally, she also has the chance to graduate with a winning record against UGA, as a win would give her a career 3-1 mark and a 75 percent win percentage.
“I’m actually 2-1 so I want to have a winning streak,” she said. “It would be huge. It would be great. That’s what we’re trying to do so it would be great to win.”
It would be a great way to welcome new coach Nell Fortner into the fold. Fortner is not new to games against Georgia, as she coached against the Lady Dawgs 10 times in her eight years as head coach at Auburn, going 4-6, 1-4 in Athens.
“It means a lot. We want to win, of course, for us and for the coaching staff,” said Pan. “She knows how big of a game it is. For her, it’s going to be huge if we win over there.”
Fortner will get her first first-hand taste of Georgia Tech-Georgia rivalry, although, as someone who has been around the game for as long as she has, she already has a pretty good idea what to expect.
“It is a rivalry. It’s Georgia-Georgia Tech,” she said. “It’s Auburn-Alabama. It’s Texas-Texas A&M. It’s those state rivalries that really create a buzz. They’re fun and your kids tend to play really well on both sides. It doesn’t matter if you’re at home or away. It’s always a competitive game. So we’re looking forward to that game.”
Coincidentally, as with her Yellow Jackets, Fortner also has never had a winning streak against Georgia and has the opportunity to put that to bed, as well as record back-to-back wins in Athens (her 2010-11 Auburn team won her last visit to Stegeman, 63-58, over No. 22 UGA, on Feb. 24, 2011, the Tigers’ first win there in more than 18 years).
She knows that Pan will play a big role in her making all of this history and that she is more than up to the challenge.
“Pan is a really, really talented player. She’s so skilled, she has a good feel for the game, high IQ, understands the game at a really high level,” Fortner said. “It’s fun to watch her play. I really enjoy coaching her.”
Getting Pan going offensively to show those skills will be priority No. 1. It’s something the Jackets have been unable to do in the three previous meetings with the Bulldogs.
Pan, who for her career averages 12.8 points per game on .353 shooting, .321 from three, has been limited to 8.7 ppg (26 total, with a high of 11 on Dec. 17, 2017, her first visit to Athens), on sub-23 percent shooting (.229, 8-for-35, .222, 4-for-18, from behind the arc).
All signs point to Pan breaking out and having that explosive, Pan-like game Sunday. She’s averaging 20.5 ppg, while shooting a sizzling .455, .409 from three.
Of course, she knows UGA will be scheming to slow her down and knows it will be tough to get in a rhythm but she’s ready to tough it out.
“It’s always a very physical game. It’s always a battle and they’re going to punch us and we have to punch back,” she said. “So it’s going to be a really good game to watch and also to play because it’s a rivalry. The winner is going to be who wants it more at the end of the game.”
Pan has learned over time just how big the game is, but also knows that she and the Jackets’ keeping their cool is vital to being successful.
“Georgia-Georgia Tech is a huge rivalry. All of us know that,” she said. “Of course, we want to win. We have to play really hard because it’s going to be a battle, but I also tell (my teammates) that it’s a basketball game, no more than that. It’s like any other basketball game, so don’t feel the pressure and just go on the court and play their game.”
These Jackets are bigger and stronger than any previous team upon which she’s played on the Flats, and with the addition of 6-5 freshman center Nerea Hermosa and a more seasoned roster, appear poised to throw the bigger haymaker and make history.
She’s fully aware of what this game means and what’s at stake.
“When I came to America my first year, I didn’t really feel this rivalry because I’m not from here,” she said. “But once we played a game and I saw the fans and I saw how the fans were reacting, and how the climate on Georgia week was crazy, I started feeling the rivalry more. So it’s going to be a huge game. We want to win the game, but we also want to make history.”