This Is Us
Women’s hoops show their personality, potential in solid win over Wake Forest
By Jon Cooper
The Good Word
In her 15 seasons as Georgia Tech women’s basketball’s head coach, MaChelle Joseph has crafted an identity for her team.
What she’d seen over the past two weeks didn’t jibe with that identity.
What she saw on Sunday afternoon at McCamish Pavilion started to.
The Yellow Jackets’ 79-67 win over Wake Forest not only put the brakes on a four-game losing streak but offered promise for the rest of the regular season and postseason. The Jackets simply followed her blueprint for this year’s team — senior leadership, aggressive play on defense, smart play on offense and resilience.
“I think we kind of lost that feeling of how good we can be,” said Joseph, whose team raised its record to 13-7, 2-5 in ACC play. “For us to score 79 points against this team says a lot about us and what we’re capable of. It felt really good to be able to fight back and see our players make plays when Wake Forest made a run at us. That’s something we haven’t done in the previous four games.”
The Jackets had five players in double-figures, led by senior Zaire O’Neil, who went for 18, and showed they could score both in the paint and from the perimeter, as Elo Edeferioka chipped in with 11, Antonia Peresson had 12, coming on four three-pointers — both season-highs — Francesca Pan added 11, with a pair of three’s, and freshman Kierra Fletcher had 11, with nine points coming at the line to help the Jackets seal the game.
“I thought that we had good offensive balance and defensive balance,” said Joseph. “I thought we had some players step up and really fill in. Like (forward Lorela) Cubaj wasn’t having her best game but I thought that Elo made some great plays on the defensive end and I thought Kierra Fletcher did a great job, for a freshman, hitting her free throws down the stretch.”
The heavy lifting was done by the seniors, who combined for 43 points on 50 percent shooting (16-for-32), 40 percent from three (4-for-10, all four from Peresson), 21 rebounds, 10 assists, three blocks, and eight steals in the win. That kind of production is a really good sign and jibes with Joseph’s M.O., as she constantly reminds her team that it can only be as good as its seniors.
Another good sign came in the Jackets’ resilience.
That was tested right off the bat, as Wake Forest, which has now lost four straight, came out smoking. The Demon Deacons scored the game’s first seven points and, defensively, flummoxed Tech, which started 0-for-4 with a pair of turnovers before Chanin Scott’s bucket 3:25 into the game.
Shortly after Scott’s basket, Joseph turned to her bench and bringing in the Jackets’ second wave, which featured seniors O’Neil, Peresson, point guard Imani Tilford, grad student Breanna Brown and junior Kaylan Pugh. The wake-up call was heard, as the Tech outscored Wake 19-2 to end the quarter then put up another 8-0 burst to begin the second quarter to open a 29-9 lead.
Peresson keyed the barrage, hitting her first four three-point attempts. Her hot hand also served to free up guard Francesca Pan.
“When we play her and Pan, when they play together it’s harder to guard both of them,” Joseph said. “I thought that opened up both of them for some more shots.”
It also pulled Wake Forest out of its zone, forcing them to play man-to-man defense, which opened up the floor for O’Neil.
O’Neil responded, hitting nine of 13 shots, most importantly, eight of her first 10, as the Jackets led by 40-28 at the break then weathered a Demon Deacons rally in the third quarter.
O’Neil was key in fighting off stubborn Wake Forest, scoring back-to-back baskets after the lead shrank to 45-40 with 3:17 left in the third.
Sunday’s outburst was O’Neil’s 12th double-figure-scoring game of the season and was the eighth time she followed a single-digit-scoring game with a double-digit effort. But she was about more than just scoring. O’Neil filled the box score, grabbing seven rebounds (three on the offensive end), dishing out five assists, blocking a shot and making two steals.
Most important was her season-high 35 minutes and committing only three fouls.
“If Zaire can play that many minutes that’s what her stats would be every night,” said Joseph. “It’s one of the things we’ve talked to her about is just not fouling and staying in the game. I thought she played really well, with a lot of confidence and very aggressive and very focused tonight. I’m just really proud of the plays that she made on the offensive end.”
O’Neil may have struggled at the line for the Jackets, who outscored Wake Forest 23-13 from the line. But Fletcher did not. The freshman, who didn’t even get to the line in either of the previous two games, went 9-for-10 — both season-highs — and was a perfect 8-for-8 over the final 1:24 to help seal the deal. Edeferioka made seven of her 10 FTAs
But Edeferioka’s biggest contribution came on the boards. She tied O’Neil for the team lead with seven, pulling in five of them in the second half after pulling only two in the first 20 minutes. The Jackets, outrebounded 16-14 in the first half, controlled the boards over the final 20, winning the battle on the boards 26-15, 11-7 on the offensive end.
“I challenged (Edeferioka) at half time that she played 18 minutes and only had two rebounds and we were getting outrebounded.” said Joseph. “One of the things we talked about this game, the key to this game was not getting outrebounded because they had 50 rebounds against us last year. We were getting outrebounded at halftime and I thought Elo did a great job of making second and third efforts in the second half and getting us some key rebounds.”
Joseph believes the team is on the rebound from its 1-5 start and it took a positive step forward Sunday. But she pointed out that they’re not quite there yet.
“I thought that we, again, played three great quarters. We have to figure out how to put four great quarters together. We had 20 turnovers, we still missed 10 free throws. Those are things you’ve got to fix,” she said. “But we put ourselves in the position to win a game against the team that just took (No. 12/11) Florida State to overtime.”
The key now is to continue to get better.
“I feel really good about this team,” she added. “This league, it’s unforgiving and you’ve got to have a short memory. That’s one of the things we’ve got to do. You can’t get to high over a win or too low over a loss. We have to bounce back and we have to come back and get ready for Virginia Tech.”