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#TGW: Stick To Me

Dec. 30, 2015

By Jon Cooper | The Good Word

– In team sports it’s a fine line between united and untied. That difference can be the team’s cohesive bond, something that is the goal of every coach.

Often, behind that cohesion there is one central player around whom everyone comes together. That player has become known as “the glue player.”

“The glue player” doesn’t need to be the best scorer, the best defender or the best passer. It doesn’t even have to be a starter. It’s just that someone that brings and keeps the team together. There’s no telling who it will be or where he or she will come from but it’s a player that a team with title aspirations needs and is glad to have.

For Georgia Tech that person is Irene Gari, a 6-1 grad student perimeter player, who came to Atlanta from Olivia, Spain via El Paso, Texas. Georgia Tech (10-3) is glad to have her, especially as it opens its ACC schedule Wednesday night against No. 3/3 Notre Dame (11-1) at Purcell Pavilion in South Bend, Ind. The game tips off at 7 p.m. and can be seen on ESPN3 and heard on WREK 91.1 FM.

“Irene Gari has been an impact player for us. She is a high-energy kid that can do a lot of things,” said head coach MaChelle Joseph, whose 13th ACC opener at Tech also is her eighth against a top-10 team and fifth against a top-five opponent. “She’s a great teammate. She’s one of those kids that has been a glue player. That’s the kind of position we’ve been lacking the last couple of years.

“She’s that type of kid that will do anything,” Joseph continued. “She’ll get a rebound. She’ll dive on the floor, she’ll get a deflection, she’ll score. She’s one of those kids that steps up night in and night out and gives you something in a different category. If you look at her stat sheets she always has something across the board. It’s not one or two areas.”

Through Tech’s non-conference slate Gari averaged 7.0 points, 2.0 rebounds, 1.8 assists and 1.3 steals, and is shooting a team-best 40.6 from three-point range (seventh in the ACC). But the numbers don’t illustrate the versatility of which Joseph spoke. Gari, who played in all 13 games, starting six, led the Jackets in scoring once, in assists three times, has four double-figure-scoring games, including a 20-pointer, and three games with at least three steals.

Doing a little bit of everything has been part of the evolution to her game at Tech, something that wasn’t as prevalent during her four-years at Texas-El Paso.

“In UTEP I was kind of a shooter. That was the only thing I was doing, shooting, shooting, shooting,” admitted Gari, who averaged 5.3 points on 35.4 shooting (38.2 her final two seasons), 26.3 from three-point range. “Here my role is playing defense, getting rebounds, hustle points and that’s what I like to do. I’m going to help the team with whatever they need. If I have to take charges or whatever the team needs, I’m going to do it. At the end we just want to win. So whatever I can do for the team to win I’m going to do it.”

Such selflessness reminded Joseph of past “glue players,” especially from the teams that put together four straight 20-plus-win seasons (2008-09 through 2011-12) and culminated in Georgia Tech’s first Sweet 16 appearance.

“Since Mo Bennett and Chelsea Regins, we really haven’t had glue players,” said Joseph. “That’s the kind of kid we’ve needed for the last couple of years.”

Joseph felt the team needed that kind of individual this year and rewarded Gari with her first start at the ACC-Big Ten Challenge, against Indiana on Dec. 2. She had her typical stat-stuffer day — 12 points on 5-for-9 shooting (2-for-2 from three-point range), three rebounds, three assists and a steal in a season-high 37 minutes.

The Jackets lost that night but Gari earned Joseph’s confidence. The coach paired Gari in the starting lineup with point guard Imani Tilford, moving freshman sensation Ciani Cryor to sixth man. Both Gari and Cryor have responded.

Over the last five games Gari is averaging 7.2 points, 2.0 rebounds, on 36.3 percent shooting (12-for-33), 29.4 percent from three-point range (5-for-17), including hitting a 4-for-8 night on Dec. 5 against USC Upstate at McCamish Pavilion, with three double-figure scoring games — she had one in the previous seven games. Irene has 10 assists and 11 steals in the five starts following IU vs. 10 and five in the seven games coming off the bench prior to Indiana. Cryor has become instant offense off the bench, having two double-digit-scoring games, three games shooting better than 50 percent and four straight games with at least three assists — she had two of the latter in the first eight games. She’s also taking better care of the ball, as she has three games of at least plus-2 in assist-turnover ratio — her first such games of the season.

But the most important number is 5-0, the team’s record since the change. The five straight wins are a season-long winning streak and includes a resounding 70-58 win over Alabama on Dec. 18 at McCamish in a game that wasn’t that close.

The team is feeling good about itself, no one more so than Gari.

“I have more confidence now than I had before,” she said. “I think it was getting to know the system, getting to know the coach and my teammates. I feel good as a starter. I like to start but if I have to come of the bench to help my team off the bench I will do it, too.

“I just go out there and play hard,” she added. “I only have one year at Georgia Tech, so I want to take advantage of every single moment, go out there, play hard, have fun with my teammates. The great thing about this team is we’re a family. We have such good chemistry on and off the court and I think that shows in the games.”

It showed in the Alabama win, where Tech never trailed and led by as much as 25, and, the Jackets hope, will carry over to ACC play, starting against national power Notre Dame.

“I think it was a good test for us,” Gari said. ”I think beating an SEC team, we’re going to show people that we can do great things. Now, with this game, people are going to say, ‘Hey, Georgia Tech Women’s Basketball is here. You better watch out.’”

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