Women’s hoops got a glimpse of the future and it looks good
By Jon Cooper
The Good Word
MaChelle Joseph sets the bar very high for her team every season, but she also realizes that sometimes the program can move forward even if the team falls short of that year’s goals.
That’s the case with Georgia Tech’s 2017-18 women’s basketball team. They went 20-14 (6-10 in ACC play), won a game — nearly two — in the ACC Tournament, and two more — nearly three — in the WNIT.
Joseph was fine with the record and while those near-misses, and a couple during the season, gave her reason to wring her hands, the team’s fight gave her reason to look excitedly at the immediate future.
“Any time you win 20 games and get a chance to play in postseason you know you’ve had a successful year,” she said. “I think it was a season where we were inconsistent. At the end of the day I thought we played really well in November (7-1), December (5-2) and February (5-3). I thought that we struggled in January (1-6) but when you look back at our schedule, the majority of our ACC games were away in January. We really only lost one game on the road to a team that didn’t make postseason or the NCAA Tournament.”
The 20-win season was Joseph’s third straight and 10th in 15 years as head coach on The Flats. Tech also reached postseason for the 11th time under Joseph, reaching the third round of the WNIT, falling at Alabama, 61-59, in heartbreaking fashion.
The loss came three games short of where the Yellow Jackets wanted to be, and where they finished in 2016-17 when they got to the championship game, but calling this team underachievers would be wrong.
If anything, it advanced the program.
They finished having transitioned into a team led by true freshmen at point guard, Kierra Fletcher, and center, Lorela Cubaj, with sophomore wing Francesca Pan flexing her muscles as a true leader, and with plenty of young talent in reserve.
Pan, last year’s ACC Freshman of the Year, followed up with a strong season, leading the Jackets in scoring (14.3 ppg, 14.3 in ACC play), and three-point shooting, raising her scoring by around a three-point field goal per game, and hitting 16 more three-pointers (12 more in ACC play) than last season. She went for a career-high 26 at Syracuse on Jan. 4.
Fletcher, a two-guard in high school, took over at the point, averaging 7.6 points, 5.2 rebounds and 2.3 assists per game (8.7/6.0/2.3 in conference play). She had 11 double-figure scoring games, 27 games with two-or-fewer turnovers (including her final six games), six of those clean games, to earn freshman all-ACC honors.
Cubaj came on late, becoming a dominant force on both ends of the floor. She recorded a double-double in the first round of the WNIT against Bethune-Cookman (17 points, 13 rebounds) — she nearly had a triple-double, recording seven assists — and showed great hands, finishing third on the team in steals — behind guards Tilford, and Fletcher (she was fourth in conference play behind Tilford, Fletcher and Pan).
The returning trio makes Tech formidable.
“Anytime you have a point, a wing and a post that can play at a high level coupled with experience you have a chance in this league,” Joseph said. “I think all three of those players have potential to be pros. In this league you’ve got to have players that are going to be pros if you want to have a chance to compete and win at a high level.”
Pan, Fletcher and Cubaj are only the tip of the iceberg talent-wise. Joseph also pointed to a more mature — and she hopes more consistent — Chanin Scott, who heads into her junior season, senior guard Kaylan Pugh, and a pair of redshirts — sophomore forward Anne Francoise Diouf and guard Daijah Jefferson.
Scott made modest gains in scoring (6.8 ppg, 5.3 in ACC play — up from 4.5 and 3.5) and put up a pair of double-doubles, setting her career-high with 13 rebounds at Princeton on Nov. 19, then her career high with 17 points against Charleston Southern on Dec. 19, then matched it two days later, against Southern Miss. But late in the season, she scored in single digits in 11 of the final 13 games.
Pugh was her usual fearless rim-attacker, and provided a huge spark off the bench until suffering a season-ending injury late in the season. Her loss was definitely felt. She’s expected back as her usual difference-maker.
Tech also can expect contributions inside, with Diouf, a 6-4 forward, and outside, with freshman forward Jefferson, a 6-3 long-range shooter even though neither saw the court in ‘17-18.
“We redshirted Anne by choice. Looking back on it, maybe it wasn’t the best decision at the time, but looking forward, it’s a great decision because she has three years left,” Joseph said. “We had an opportunity to work with her for a full year and develop her skill set. I thought a key injury for us was Daijah. She was one of our better three-point shooters and she got injured the first exhibition game and had to miss the entire season.
“Even though they didn’t play this year, they have a year of experience because they went through the practices and the games and they know what to expect and they have another year in the weight room,” Joseph added. “So I think we have a really good core group of returners. On top of that, they’re tremendous workers. So any time you have a group that is that committed and works that hard, you get excited thinking about what potential that team will be.”
Then there’s the incoming freshman.
“We’re bringing in two prolific three-point shooters in Lotta-Maj Lahtinen and Jasmine Carson, so that gives us some options as far as being able to stretch the defense,” Joseph said. “Getting Daijah eligible, we just have more weapons offensively. It’s exciting to think about just the potential of that class. It’s top-10 in the country. Those are the type of players we need to be able to compete with the Notre Dames and the Louisvilles in our league.”
The Jackets already beat Notre Dame and Louisville to a pair of McDonald’s All-Americans, both named Elizabeth, both from Tennessee — Elizabeth Balogun, a 6-1 guard from Chattanooga, and Elizabeth Dixon, a 6-5 forward/center from Memphis.
They also recently added 5-7 guard Kondalia Montgomery, a Tacoma, Wash., native, and the younger sister of former Yellow Jackets star, Alex Montgomery (2008-11).
Joseph believes the team not only will be better with all this talent but also building off what they went through in ‘17-18, including a front-loaded ACC schedule that saw the Yellow Jackets play then-No. 3/4 Louisville and No. 2 Notre Dame — both Final Four teams, Notre Dame, the eventual national champion — 11 days apart.
“I think at first it kind of knocked us back on our heels a little bit but then after that I think we recovered and people really stepped up,” Joseph said. “It was one of those things where we had some tough games early but we recovered and we got better from our losses. That’s the sign of a good team. This team could have buried themselves in February. Instead, we had a tremendous response. I thought we were playing our best basketball down the stretch.”
The future of the program is looking up, but for now, the most important thing for the Jackets is resting up and re-charging.
“It’s not so much physical preparation for this season but more mental preparation,” she said. “You look at our calendar, we played to the national championship weekend last year. We played until April 1 and then we went on a foreign tour and then we played until March 15 this year. So we’ve almost played 365 days straight. We’re going to take the month of May completely off except for school and allow them to regroup and clear their minds and come back in June and we’re going to get after it and get ready for next year.”