Women’s basketball visits Houston looking to take its first big step of ‘18-19 season
By Jon Cooper
The Good Word
No one has to tell MaChelle Joseph about a young team taking baby steps.
She’s been there before and as she begins her 16th season as Georgia Tech women’s basketball head coach (her 18th overall) she finds herself there again.
But as her 2018-19 Yellow Jackets take the floor at H&PE Arena Friday night (located on the campus of Texas Southern with tip-off at 8 p.m. EST), with one senior and two juniors on the 13-woman roster, there’s a difference.
“It’s been a different type of year getting ready for the season, but I’ve been very optimistic with what I’ve seen so far with the returners’ leadership and the play of our outstanding freshmen class,” said Joseph, who begins the season with a 294-191 record, a 60.6 winning percentage, (106-122, .465 in ACC play), with 10 20-win seasons, including three straight and four in the past five years.
There’s good reason to be optimistic. Tech has experience, with seven players that saw court time last year returning, including the starting back court of junior two-guard Francesca Pan, the 2017 ACC Freshman of the Year, and sophomore point guard, Kierra Fletcher, who was a 2018 all-ACC Freshman.
“I think Francesca is one of the top-10 players in the ACC,” said Joseph. “I think that she is going to have an opportunity this year to showcase that talent. That’s because we have more balance and she’s going to have more help on the perimeter and inside.
“I’ve seen a huge improvement in Kierra Fletcher,” Joseph added. “She’s doing a great job leading this team. She was our leading returning rebounder coming into this season. When your point guard’s your leading returning rebounder, sometimes you worry, but she’s been such an impactful player at that point position for us, and we’re relying heavily on her leadership this season.”
Leadership abounds from every class, as each of the team’s four captains represent a class — forward Martine Fortune is the lone senior, Pan is a junior, Fletcher is a sophomore and guard Lotta-Maj Lahtinen represents the freshman class.
The Jackets have a good chance of adding at least one player to the all-ACC Freshman Team for the third-straight season, as their six freshmen comprised the seventh-ranked recruiting class in the nation and have shown signs of being able to make a big impact right away. Two of those freshmen are guard Elizabeth Balogun and forward Elizabeth Dixon.
The duo teamed up to do great things over the summer as McDonald’s All-Americans and have assimilated well to the Jackets’ system over the summer and in training camp.
“The surprising thing I’ve seen from Elizabeth Dixon and Elizabeth Balogun, has been their consistency,” said Joseph. “Usually when you have freshmen they’re very inconsistent. The thing about those two that I’ve appreciated from day one is I’ve never had to coach effort. They come in every day, they’re gym rats, they work extremely hard, they’re very focused. Both of them have tremendous ability to score in different ways. They’re very skilled for being freshmen, but I still think the thing that makes them unique is their work ethic and their ability to consistently come in every single day and practice at a high level and then play at a high level against competition.”
That talent, and ability to apply it so consistently, has the Jackets feeling confident they can take off and make a fast start, even with their youth movement.
“We’re going to have seven freshmen that will play on the floor,” said Pan, who included redshirt-freshman forward Daijah Jefferson. “They are really smart players and talented. Everybody trusts each other, we play together and it doesn’t seem like we have a lot of freshmen on the team.”
Especially poised is 5-7, hard-nosed, bad-girl Lahtinen, who has shown tremendous defensive tenacity and leadership. She expects her class to make a big enough impact to take away the label “for a freshman.”
“I feel like we have a good team chemistry,” said the Helsinki, Finland, native, who has played with the Finnish National Team since 2014. “We all have different personalities but I think that makes us even stronger. We all complement each other, make each other better.”
The Jackets should be better, especially from three-point range, where last season they made the fewest three-point shots and shot the lowest percentage in the ACC. A lot of that improvement will be predicated on the improved play in the paint loosening up opposing defenses.
That will be where where Balogun, Dixon, Jefferson, sophomore center Lorela Cubaj and redshirt-sophomore Anne Diouf will reside.
These are not your average post players. They could be the most devastating and athletic two-way force of post players that Joseph has ever had.
“It’s been fun to watch. We really get up and down the floor. It reminds me of our Sweet 16 team, where we could really get out and get in passing lanes, we could press,” said Joseph.
“I’ve never coached a group of post players that can run the floor at 6-4, 6-5, the way these ladies can run. It’s not just Liz Balogun and Lorela Cubaj. It’s Anne Diouf. At 6-5 she can really get up and down the floor. D’Asia Gregg, who’s a 6-2 freshman, can really go and she can shoot the ball with range. We’ve got some really interesting pieces. If we can weather some of the early storms, this team can be really special in February.”
The first storm comes Friday in Houston in the first meeting between the schools. It’s a fitting place to launch and should typify the challenging road that lies ahead.
The Cougars were 20-12 last season and, like the Jackets, played in the WNIT. They were picked for third in the American Athletic Conference — behind only No. 2 UConn and No. 22 South Florida — and will come into the matchup a little extra ornery, having dropped their season-opener, 80-79, at No. 24/RV Cal, on Tuesday, a game in which they nearly overcame a 12-point third-quarter deficit and saw a game-winning three rim out.
Friday night is the beginning of a non-conference schedule that Joseph believes is the toughest of her tenure, which is no small feat.
The schedule includes home games against Appalachian State, Western Carolina and No. 13/14 Georgia, a visit to Cancun for the Cancun Challenge with games against George Washington, which has won the A-10 three of the past four years, and Big Sky power Idaho State, then No. 9/10 Maryland in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge.
That’s just through November!
The players welcome the challenge but are primarily locked in on Houston.
“Having an easy preseason is not going to help prepare us for the ACC, so I’m very excited to have a tough preseason,” said Pan. “(Friday is) going to be a really tough game and we’re excited about that because they’re getting votes. We want to show them who we really are and we’re hungry for that game.”
“I’m very excited. I think this game will show us where we are,” said Fletcher. “I think we’re going to rise up to the challenge. Houston is a very good team. I think in the beginning nerves will be there because we are a young team, but I feel like once the game gets going we’ll be fine.”
Lahtinen believes that the experiences learned in the non-conference portion of the schedule will have the Jackets doing fine down the road — specifically the road back to the NCAA Tournament.
“I like it,” said Lahtinen. “If you want to go where we want to go, which is the NCAA Tournament, and even to the Sweet 16, and as far as we can go, it’s better to play tough teams now so that we kind of get the feeling what the conference will be like.”
Joseph hopes that the non-conference schedule will make the quantum leap to the ACC a little less daunting.
“This league is filled with talent,” she said. “A year where our recruiting class was ranked seventh in the country but fourth in the ACC, that gives you an idea of the kind of talent that’s coming into our league and is already in our league.
“It’s going to be interesting,” she added. “I think we’ve got to grow into understanding how to play through adversity. Playing on the road, that’s adversity. We have to learn to win on the road in this league to get into the NCAA Tournament. I want these guys to be weathered before we get to ACC play, and just have those experiences early on. We’re going to have to get tremendous play off of our bench because I think our first five is as good as anybody. I think our next three is as good as anybody. It’s just a matter of us putting it together night in and night out.”