The Truth About Kat and Dawgs
Yellow Jackets Women’s Hoops seek 4-0 start, happy ending for Vuckovic vs. UGA
By Jon Cooper
The Good Word
While all games count the same, November games don’t have the same memorable quality to them as, say, February games.
Sunday afternoon at McCamish Pavilion, only the fourth game of Georgia Tech’s 2016-17 season, is an exception. It isn’t your normal November game. It’s Tech’s annual winner-take-all game against arch-rival Georgia (tip-off is at 2 p.m.).
“We understand how important this game is not just to our team and our program but to our Institute and all of our Georgia Tech alumni and fans,” said head coach MaChelle Joseph, who has all three Jackets home wins in the series. “I think it’s going to be a very competitive, hard-fought game.”
Joseph believes that even early in the season, there’s a lot at stake in this game.
“The next three games for us we play three very good teams,” she said. “After Georgia, we head to the Bahamas and play Dayton and the winner of Missouri and Creighton. We know these next three games are going to be very crucial to our hopes of having an opportunity to play in postseason.
“Our goals are bigger than just beating Georgia this year,” she added. “But we know that’s a very important stepping stone to getting to where we want to go.”
There’s added incentive for the Jackets, who enter Sunday with a 4-34 record in the series, 3-9 at home and look to snap a five-game series losing streak. They’ll also try to send senior forward Katarina Vuckovic, out with a win — something she has yet to experience.
“I have to say it’s probably the most important game for me this season because I’ve been here three years, played Georgia three times and haven’t been able to get a ‘W,’” said the 6-3 native of Smeredevo, Serbia. “I’m pretty excited about this game because it will be my last chance to play Georgia.”
The thought of Vuckovic going winless against UGA isn’t sitting well with her teammates, either. They have made Sunday “Senior Day” for that entire area of the campus — only about 500 yards away from McCamish at O’Keefe Gym, volleyball is having its “Senior Day.”
“It’s really important because we’re a family and we have each other’s back,” said junior forward Zaire O’Neil, who leads the Jackets with 11.3 ppg on 52.0 percent shooting. “You never want a teammate of yours to feel like they haven’t had the right opportunity to go out with a bang. I feel like this win would be one of the top games for Kat in her senior year. So as a team, we have bigger goals at stake, knowing that we have to win this for Kat.”
Sunday’s game will be only the fourth of freshman guard Zutorya Cook’s college career but, the Marietta native knows the intensity of the rivalry and the importance of the game. Cook, who has started the previous two games, and leads the team with nine steals, while shooting 58.3 percent, will play against fellow Marietta native Caliya Robinson, a 6-3 sophomore forward, and renew on-court rivalries with 6-2 junior forward Mackenzie Engram, against whom she played in high school. She’s all-in for Vuckovic.
“I’m really excited,” she said. “We have a senior that’s been here for the last three years who has never beaten them. She told me the other day and I was really shocked. I think we’ve prepared quite well to play them, we’re energized and we need to play hard.”
One area in which the Jackets hope they have an advantage is in depth. Joseph has 10 players averaging at least 11 minutes per game, nine scoring at least 5.0 points per game and seven players with at least 3.0 rebounds. Nine different players have swatted away a shot.
Tech also can play from the perimeter, as three different Jackets, freshman Francesca Pan (10.3 ppg, 38.5 percent from three), junior Antonia Peresson (41.7 from three), and grad student Cha’Ron Sweeney (33.3 from downtown) are all deep threats.
“It’s the biggest team I’ve ever had,” said Joseph. “We have five players over 6-3 and our guards and our wings are able to go pretty big at times. We also have some small point guards but with our size on the inside and on the perimeter, it really gives us an advantage when we’re playing smaller teams. We have to use our size to our advantage. One of the things we have to work on is being able to get down and play smaller forwards and smaller guards and keep them in front of us.”
Their work will be cut out against the Bulldogs, who also come in 3-0 and who have seven players at least 6-1.
“It’s a very typical Georgia team. Their first five, six players are as good as anybody that we’re going to play against this year,” said Joseph. “We have to be able to utilize our depth. We play a little bit differently this year, so does Georgia. We’re both playing a lot faster so I believe that depth and endurance are going to be a key. Having our legs and being able to execute down the stretch in the fourth quarter is going to be huge.”
O’Neil feels that the depth will pay off both for her, in freeing her up, and for the team.
“It adds a great dynamic to our team knowing that there’s more than one person that you have to guard,” she said. “We have so many different weapons. It allows us to adjust to playing against different opponents. We know if it’s a smaller team we can really dominate in the post and if teams want to take away the inside we can still dominate on the outside. We have really good attacking guards. It’s seems like we have all the right pieces.”
O’Neil has something of an axe to grind, with Georgia, as she has yet to really be a factor.
“My freshman year I wasn’t really into the rotation yet and being out last year REALLY makes me excited about Sunday,” said O’Neil, who got her first taste of the rivalry as a high school senior driving from Newark, N.J., to Athens to see her future team with members of her family that live in the area. “I’ve really been looking forward to it because it’s another great way to start your season. It’s a big win looking down at Tournament time.”
Vuckovic has been a factor. She scored 21 points in last year’s game on 8-for-17 shooting (2-for-4 from three), with nine rebounds, but the Jackets came up short, losing 78-66. In fact, the Jackets have been close in all three games she’s been with the team, losing by seven in her freshman and sophomore years. She feels this year is different.
“I thought in the previous three games we didn’t have a lot of upperclassmen. This year we have two seniors, me and Cha, and five juniors and I think the experience will be really helpful,” she said. “Georgia lost all four seniors that were starting and they scored the majority of their points last year against us. So I think we have an advantage this year in experience.”
Joseph feels a win would be proper closure for Vuckovic.
“All of the seniors that have been here since I’ve been the head coach have beaten Georgia, except for Kat,” she said. “I think it’s one of the things where she needs to go out with a win against Georgia. It’s something that’s really important to us to honor our seniors and leave our best effort on the floor. Bigger than that, we want to protect our home floor.”
Vuckovic believes McCamish and Jackets fans will provide an edge.
“That’s a huge advantage,” she said. “I wouldn’t be surprised for them to have a lot of people there, but I would like to see everybody who can make the game to come. I know there’s a volleyball game right before so after volleyball — hopefully they’re going to sweep Notre Dame — I’m really expecting a lot of people. That would mean a lot to us.”