Two Money Cooks
Francesca Pan’s hot first half, Zaire O’Neil’s second advance Jackets past MTSU, to 20 wins
By Jon Cooper
The Good Word
It’s said that revenge is a dish best served cold.
But it’s a dish that can be spoiled by a hot hand.
Guard Francesca Pan and forward Zaire O’Neil supplied those hot hands, spoiling Middle Tennessee State’s plan of serving a heaping bowl of cold discomfort to Georgia Tech in Thursday night’s WNIT third-round game at McCamish Pavilion.
Pan scored a team-high 18 points and shot 6-for-6 (3-for-3 from three), in a 16-point first quarter while O’Neal added 14 on 6-for-7 shooting in the second half as the Yellow Jackets beat the Blue Raiders, 70-57.
“(Pan) Putting us on her back in the first quarter was huge,” said head coach MaChelle Joseph, whose team reach 20 wins for the ninth time in her 14-year tenure. “She’s done it all season long in big games. That’s why she was the ACC Freshman of the Year. The second half she kind of lost her momentum a little bit but it was good to see Zaire O’Neil step up and make plays.”
So much for payback for Georgia Tech’s 61-60 win in Murfreesboro on Dec. 22.
If anyone got even for that earlier matchup it was Pan, who was held to a then-season-low five field goal attempts, and only two field goals and eight points by MTSU’s in-your-face, physical defense.
“When we played them the first time they were face-guarding her and she couldn’t touch the ball. She really wanted to help her team. She wanted to score,” said Joseph. “So we put a lot of sets in for this game to give her space to be able to help her team on backdoor cuts and reads. She’s really good off the ball reading screens so she made plays for us.”
Pan came out looking to show that the previous game was atypical, although more from a team aspect.
“I really wanted to win this game,” she said. “At their court we won only by one and so we wanted to show that we could do more. We wanted to say to them that we are better than the first game. So I went to the court with a lot of energy. It was good.”
Pan was better than good. She was perfect. She needed 2:33 to surpass her FGMs and points from the previous matchup with MTSU. She scored six straight points in a 9-0 run that gave Tech a 15-2 lead on the way to a 27-9 first quarter lead, and was outscoring the Blue Raiders until 30 seconds remained in the HALF. The Jackets led 34-20 at the break.
She was feeling it and rode the wave of emotion.
“Every shot that went in I kept the energy,” Pan said. “Every shot more energy. So I was ready for the next shot.”
Her teammates helped by encouraging her and giving her the ball.
“Oh, man, she was on fire,” said O’Neil. “Every time she walked past I was like, ‘Keep shooting! Keep shooting!’ That’s the same as she would tell me if it was the other way around.”
In the second half, it was, as Pan cooled off but O’Neil heated up, owning the paint. She missed only one shot and keyed a Jackets’ 22-8 dominance in the paint in the second half. Her four straight points sparked a 9-0 run to end the third quarter and extend Tech’s lead to 25.
“I thought the second half, Zaire O’Neil stepped up and showed us why she’s our go-to player,” said Joseph. “I thought every time we got her the ball she made something happen.”
That was despite what was happening to her.
“Zaire is getting HAMMERED a lot of times. She’s a really physical kid but it’s hard to score when three people are hanging on you,” said Joseph, with a laugh. “I thought she did a great job in the second half playing through the physicality and making plays. Even though she didn’t necessarily get the foul called she still was able to score and be productive.”
O’Neil’s toughness showed right away Thursday, as she set a crushing screen on Tech’s first possession, a possession that led to an offensive rebound and a basket by forward Elo Edeferioka.
“They’re a physical team, so we had to show them that we have toughness, that we build toughness on this floor,” said O’Neil. “It’s a first impression. You have to leave it on them.”
The Jackets left the Blue Raiders in the dust and now set their sights on the Crimson Tide.
With the shoe of revenge now on the other foot, Georgia Tech will look to avenge a 67-65 loss in Tuscaloosa on Dec. 17. In that game Tech led 20-7 after one but could not hold on and lost by a bucket, shooting 11-for-22 from the line.
Tech wants a different result this time. They REALLY want it.
“This team’s hungry,” said Joseph. “We missed 254 free throws this year before postseason play and lost nine games by 33 points. So this is a team that could be 26-5. We’re hungry to prove that we’re a better team than how we performed in some of those one-point losses. We’re hungry for a rematch with Alabama because that was a game that we lost at the end by two points. We had an opportunity to win and we weren’t able to connect.”
Improving their chances against Alabama is their ability to keep opposing teams from connecting. MTSU’s 57 points are the most any team has scored in the WNIT. They’re also rebounding. The Jackets also outrebounded the Blue Raiders, 46-31, with seven of Tech’s nine players grabbing at least four rebounds, led by point guard Imani Tilford, who had eight.
“The thing that pleased me the most was our rebounding,” said Joseph. “The fact that we outrebounded MTSU by 15 says a lot about the work that we put in on the boards. When your point guard leads you in rebounding that’s a good day.”
The Jackets hope Sunday will be a good day as well, as they seek to advance to the WNIT semifinals. The day even starts off cool, as Joseph is sporting for King of Pops for the first 1,000 fans.
Playing one more time at McCamish is certainly nice.
“It’s really exciting knowing that we can get the job done on our home court,” said O’Neil. “We play really well at home, we have a really good support system. I feel like playing at home really gives us an edge because we know how to win here.”