Senior Katarina Vuckovic will do whatever it takes to get Georgia Tech a win
By Jon Cooper
The Good Word
What makes a great final season is different for every player and can change over the course of that season.
It’s safe to say that heading into her final year senior forward Katarina Vuckovic would not have called 3.0 points and 4.3 rebounds in 22.3 minutes per game a great final season.
But with Georgia Tech at 13-4 and riding a two-game winning streak heading into Wednesday night’s tilt in No. 9/8 Louisville at the KFC Yum! Center (tip-off is at 7 p.m. and the game can be seen on ACC Network Extra), Vuckovic is riding high and believes the team’s confidence is cresting as well.
Then, again, personal numbers always took a backseat for Vuckovic.
“Of course it is a little bit (disappointing) but I always think what’s best for the team,” she said. “It’s really not important, I don’t think, to anybody. We just want to win. We play for each other.”
Nobody personifies that more than Vuckovic, whose value to the team can’t accurately be measured in standard statistics. After all, there’s no way to measure making a point guard think twice about, or changing the trajectory of, an entry pass into the post out of fear of Vuckovic’s long arms making a deflection. There’s no way to measure boxing out an opponent or keeping a rebound alive so a teammate can get the offensive rebound and convert second-chance points.
Perhaps most important, there’s no way to measure how her teammates younger and older can be inspired and learn from watching her example.
That last point is one of the most important to her.
“I try to help them out on the court, especially running our system,” said the 6-3 forward from Smederevo, Serbia. “I try to talk to them a lot, especially to the freshmen because we run a lot of plays and we change defenses all the time. I’m just trying to make sure they know what they’re supposed to do and where they’re supposed to be at what time.”
One thing her teammates can certainly learn from Kat is to keep their head in the game.
“That’s just a mindset I have,” she said. “You just have to be ready when your opportunity comes. Just stay ready because until the buzzer goes off you have to be ready. You have to have your head in the game.”
Head coach MaChelle Joseph noticed that after the way Vuckovic helped the Yellow Jackets ice Sunday’s 75-66 win over the No. 24 Orange at McCamish Pavilion.
“A lot of kids would have been sitting there thinking about their minutes and not being in the game,” Joseph said. “She cheered for her team the entire time. She was selfless. She got out there when her opportunity presented itself and she was ready.”
The moment came with 23 seconds left and the Jackets holding a 70-64 lead. During a timeout, Joseph had free throws on the brain.
“I looked over at the bench and I was like, ‘Who’s my best free throw shooter?’” Joseph recalled. “I know Kat shoots over 80 percent so I was like, ‘I have to get her in there.’ I just knew she would step up and knock them down and I’m really proud of her for doing that.”
Kat missed the first try, but cooly drained the second. After Tech got a stop she’d make two more to ice the game. The Jackets had their second straight conference win after a 0-2 start in ACC play and had knocked off the Orange for the first time in history in their fifth try.
Vuckovic never had any doubts. She’s shooting 80.0 percent for the season and is 70.8 for her career (an average pulled down by 3-for-6 shooting as a freshman).
“We’ve shot almost a thousand free throws since we started practicing this year and my percentage has always been up around 80 percent in practice, actually above 80,” she said. “Just knowing that I’ve put in the work…I missed the first one. After that, I knew I was going to make those.”
That kind of confidence is crucial — especially since Vuckovic hadn’t taken a free throw since the 2:31 mark of the fourth quarter on Dec. 1 against Michigan, a stretch of 382:08 of game time.
Vuckovic simply reverted to doing what she always does.
“I bounce the ball three times but that’s about it,” she said, with a laugh. “I’m just thinking about making the shot. Just getting it over the rim, not having it short, and having my follow through. I think where my arm is going to end up because I had a bad habit of pulling my whole arm to the right side. So just finishing at the rim.”
Vuckovic is looking to finish her career and help the Jackets finish this season on a high by doing something else she’s always done — have fun playing the game at the highest level. Louisville is next in their sites, the fourth nationally ranked opponent in their first five conference games.
“Of course. You want to play against the best. That’s why we’re playing this game,” she said. “It’s always exciting if you can beat a ranked opponent.”
Vuckovic’s crunch-time performance against Syracuse may have her playing an even greater role in beating those ranked teams by being on the floor and at the line late. Joseph’s confidence in her is inspiring.
“It’s great when the coach believes in you and has so much trust to put you in the game at the end,” she said. “That’s not a small thing. It’s a huge thing so I’m really appreciative of that.”
Vuckovic believes this team appreciates the opportunities that lie ahead, learning not only from this year’s early-season ACC gauntlet but also from last season.
“I feel like we have a lot of confidence right now,” she said. “We had a tough start, the first two games, but I feel like we were able to bounce back. We got a really important win against Syracuse and especially beating Syracuse for the first time in history gives us a lot of confidence, too.
“We have eight teams ranked in the coaches’ poll,” she added. “So it’s the toughest conference right now in the country, I feel like on any given night anybody can beat anybody. So you have to be ready every day to come out ready to play.”