#TGW: Tournament Time
Women’s basketball young but fired up to compete, prove people wrong at ACC Tournament
By Jon Cooper
The Good Word
There’s no way to simulate experience but enthusiasm and effort can go a long way in compensating for it.
Enthusiasm and effort will be what ninth-seeded Georgia Tech (17-12, 7-9) counts on when it takes on 8th-seeded North Carolina (17-13, 8-8) in its ACC Tournament opener Thursday afternoon at Greensboro Coliseum (tip-off is at 2 p.m. and can be seen on Fox Sports South).
They’ll be up against it as their seven freshmen and nine of the 11 active players on the roster have never taken the court in an ACC Tournament game. They’ll also be playing in hostile territory, with UNC basically the host school, as Greensboro is only 51 miles away from Chapel Hill (Wake Forest is actually closer, as Winston Salem is 29 miles away) — and the Jackets will play with a depleted roster, as neither starting two-guard Francesca Pan nor starting point Kierra Fletcher will be with the team.
Acting head coach Mark Simons believes that his team will continue to compete as they did down the stretch, and find another gear to snap their season-ending three-game losing streak. The level of competitiveness was noticeably ratcheted up in the practices preparing for the Tournament.
“I’m really pleased with the way these kids are competing,” said Simons, who served as the acting head coach for the Jackets’ final two regular season games. “They’re competing at a very, very high level given that they’ve been placed in circumstances that they haven’t been in before.
“They’re very confident going into this game,” he added. “The biggest thing to me was how focused they were when we were going through everything. They were on it. We really feel like they’re ready to play.”
The Jackets will go into Thursday with the starting lineup they’ve used in the final two regular-season games against No. 15 Miami and No. 22 Florida State. The lineup includes three freshmen, guard Elizabeth Balogun, forward Elizabeth Dixon and point Lotta-Maj Lahtinen. Sophomore Lorela Cubaj starts at center with junior Chanin Scott completing the starting five.
Lack of experience certainly didn’t stop Balogun and Dixon. They were the only freshmen to start every game this season, they combined to win seven ACC Rookie of the Week Awards (Balogun four, Dixon three), and both were named to the All-ACC Freshman Team. On Wednesday, Balogun added ACC Rookie of the Year to her resume, becoming the third Jacket to win the award and the second in three years (Pan won it in 2017, Niesha Butler won in 1999).
Balogun led the team in scoring, with 14.8 ppg, (tops among all ACC freshmen, eighth among freshmen nationally and 14th in the ACC), three-point shooting, with 67 three-pointers (seventh in the league), steals (49) and even blocked shots (32, 10th). Dixon is second on the team in rebounding with 6.6 rpg (21st in the ACC), and leads the team with 3.5 offensive rebounds (third in the conference). Together they’ve combined for 43 double-figure-scoring games (24 for Balogun, 19 for Dixon) with six double-doubles (Dixon four, Balogun two) and have led the team in scoring 20 times (Balogun 13 times, Dixon seven), 13 times in ACC play (Balogun seven, Dixon six).
“We’re going to pin a lot on them,” Simons said. “Is that fair for a freshman? Well, as far as we’re concerned, they’re no longer freshmen. They’ve played 29 games, they’ve played a ton of minutes — probably more than most freshmen should have played – [Balogun’s 923, 30.8 per game, is 11th in the league, Dixon clocks in 25.5 mpg] but given the circumstances, they’ve excelled.
“They’ve had great years and I’m really, really happy for them that they were able to get these honors because they’re very deserving,” he added. “The thing about those two kids, the accolades are fine, but they just want to win.”
Simons also is counting on Scott and Lahtinen to continue playing at their high-level since moving into the starting lineup for Miami.
“Lotta-Maj has played a lot of minutes (39 and 29) in the last two games. Chanin Scott the same thing (27 and 23),” he said. “Those kids hadn’t been playing that much and now we’re depending on them. As coaches, we always talk about, ‘Hey, your time may come. You’ve got to be ready.’ Those two kids have put in additional time after practice getting up shots, working on their ball-handling, those types of things and now here they are. Now they’re in the spotlight, starting and actually playing pretty well.”
Lahtinen will make her third-straight start at the point after making two in her first 27 games. She has 11 assists, including seven in the season finale against Florida State. But she also has nine turnovers, including seven against FSU. The turnover bug bit the Jackets hard in the fourth quarter of the loss to the Seminoles, in which they led after three, but committed eight turnovers, in the fourth quarter and fell 64-55.
“It’s unfortunate that the wheels fell off in the fourth quarter because we were playing really well, we were sharing the ball and actually executing very, very well,” Simons said. “Then we had some turnovers in a row that led to what we call ‘turnovers for touchdowns.’ That really hurt us. It kind of took the wind out of our sails. When you’re dealing with a lot of really young kids, sometimes they don’t respond the way you want them to. We’ve talked a lot about that the last couple of days.”
Simons will have no problem throwing up the stop sign if he sees the wheels start coming loose Thursday.
“You’ve got to use your timeouts,” he said. “Just tell them, ‘Take a deep breath. Slow down your heart rate. Everything’s going to be okay.’ Just give them some assurances because they can get a little uptight. This is the big stakes. This is the ACC Tournament and these freshmen have never experienced this. It’s really going to be fun for them. You always remember your first ACC Tournament and I’m really, really excited for them going into this.”
He shrugged off any nerves HE might have with it also being HIS first ACC Tournament game as a coach and having to match wits with coaching legend Sylvia Hatchell. After all, he’s already coached there and won there, against a coaching legend.
“I’m just kind of driving the bus,” Simons said, with a laugh. “I’m trying to keep the kids focused. Sylvia’s a Hall of Fame coach. I’ve actually coached in that building before, against UNCG, when I was the men’s coach at Elon. We won a game on a tip at the buzzer when Fran McCaffery was the men’s coach at UNCG. So I’ve got ONE WIN over there.”
The Jackets are confident they can make it two and avenge an earlier loss to UNC.
They nearly overcame a 14-point deficit on Jan. 31 at Carmichael Arena, losing, 91-90, on a last-second foul shot, despite a heroic effort from Balogun, who went for a season-high 35 on 11-for-20 shooting (6-for-12 from three and 7-for-9 from the line, including three in the closing seconds). That was a night when the Tar Heels shot 50 percent from three (14-for-28). They finished ninth in the league at 32.8 percent.
To be successful Thursday Tech will need to stop redshirt senior guard Paris Kea, who scored 29 points on 9-for-16 shooting (3-for-6 from three), with six assists vs. one turnover in the first meeting. They’ll also try to put the brakes on sophomore center Janelle Bailey, the 2018 ACC Freshman of the Year, who added 20 on 7-for-12 shooting (6-for-8 from the line). The duo ties for fifth in the ACC in scoring at 16.7 ppg. Redshirt junior guard Stephanie Watts is dangerous from behind the arc, as her 82 field goals tied for the lead in the ACC and her .363 three-point field goal percentage ranked fourth.
“We’ve got to do some things defensively to limit Paris Kea’s touches. Then, when she does get the ball, we have to make it very difficult for her,” said Simons. “Janelle Bailey’s just tough inside. She’s so talented, so strong, so tough, and tough-minded that we’ve got to take away what we think is her strength and make her have to go the other way. Use our length a little bit on her and not let her get that early ‘two feet in the paint’ post position.
“We’ve given our players what we think is a pretty good game plan based on the way they played us last time,” he added. “They have a couple of kids that will be high Draft picks. So we will have to play extremely well.”
Simons feels the team’s season-long ability to handle adversity could help on Thursday.
“That’s what we’re counting on,” he said. “They’ve had a lot of adversity all year. I really feel like they’re competing at a high level, they’re supporting one another, they’ve really bonded together. We feel really good about our chances.”