Forward Zaire O’Neil becoming an unstoppable scoring machine
By Jon Cooper
The Good Word
“Zaaaa-eeeeeeeeeer O’Neeeeeeeeel!” blares out of the public address system and rings through McCamish Pavilion.
It’s announced with the same cadence as the one that roared through NBA home arenas for the better part of 19 years to regale the heroics of legendary NBA Hall of Fame center Shaquille O’Neil, and is starting to be heard with almost the same frequency at Georgia Tech women’s basketball games.
Okay, so Zaire may not bring the T-Rex-like domination Shaq did — who CAN claim that? — and, on the surface, the 5-11 O’Neil shares little more with the 7-1 O’Neal than the same phonetic surname and birth place (Newark, N.J.).
There is one more similarity, however. She can claim a similar love and talent for the game of basketball and a desire to be the best at it.
That last similarity can’t be understated and has gone a long way in the junior forward’s bouncing back from last year’s devastating knee injury and this year’s blossoming into one of the top post players not only in the ACC but in the country.
She was THE top post player in the country last week, when NCAA.com named her to its Starting Five, awarded to the top players in the nation. That honor came only two days after being named the top PLAYER, period, in the ACC for the week.
“I think she’s really started to come into her own,” said Georgia Tech head coach MaChelle Joseph. “She’s in the best shape of her life, she’s able to play extended minutes, she’s found different ways to score and create shots for herself. She’s a tremendous talent and she’s being a lot more consistent.
“Her confidence is really high right now,” Joseph added. “I think her teammates are understanding that she’s our go-to player. We’ve worked extremely hard to get her shots and she’s been able to step up and convert for us.”
O’Neil credits that boost in confidence to her teammates’ belief in her.
“My teammates just give me the ball and they tell me, ‘Hey, go score.’ So they instill that confidence in me,” she said. “Just knowing I’ve worked hard to get to this point where I’m one of the go-to players on the team, I’ve worked hard to get that recognition. So I want to lead by example and that’s what I’m trying to do on the floor.”
She’s not only trying but succeeding. If you’re looking for a turning point look to the Jan. 15 at No. 9/8 Louisville.
A seven-point, 2-for-8 shooting day in the 91-51 loss to the Cardinals, lit a fire under O’Neil. In the six games after, she averaged 21.7 points, going for at least 20 four times (she also had a 19-point game), while shooting 60.0 percent (54-for-90), 64.7 percent from the line (22-for-34, 15-for-20 over the most recent two games).
Against No. 19 NC State last Thursday night, a heart-breaking 75-67 overtime loss, Zaire held court. She scored a game- and career-high 28, shot 10-for-16, 8-for-10 from the stripe, while pulling down a team- and game-high-tying nine rebounds, a game-best four of them off the offensive glass. She did this despite being limited to 30 minutes due to foul trouble. She’d foul out with 1:36 left overtime and Tech down five, but in the process, basically fouled out Wolfpack center Jennifer Mathurin, who played her ACC- and season-low-tying 14 minutes in suffering her first DQ via fouls this season.
The ‘pack front line was just the most recent team to learn what a handful O’Neil has become. In the last three games heading into Notre Dame on Sunday, Z made 31 field goals on 52 tries (59.6 percent), and led the Jackets in scoring with 24, 25 and 28 points — she’s been the Jackets’ high scorer in four straight games. The three straight 20-point games were a career-first, matching her total of 20-point games coming into the season, and gave her five for the season.
She is realizing the level of play that Joseph saw coming early on.
“I knew when Zaire was a freshman that she was a special player and I knew she was an All-ACC player,” said Joseph. “When she had her injury it took her a while to recover so she struggled a little bit during her sophomore year and then her junior year has been tough because she was really trying to figure out how to score and get herself in shape and be able to stay in the games. I feel like this year she’s really started to come into her own.”
O’Neil is displaying the kind of superb athleticism that caught Joseph’s attention at Malcolm X Shabazz High School, where she won a city title in tennis and was Group Two State finalist in discus — the athletic excellence was in addition to being Senior Class President, and a member of National Honor Society and National Honor Society for Science.
Excelling in those very diverse sports all were for a common goal.
“It ultimately all comes back to basketball,” she said. “Tennis really helped me with my footwork. That’s why I’m able to do some of the things I do on the court. Being able to throw the discus, some people don’t know you have to triple-spin. That’s been one of the things that has helped me master my spin move. So it all just comes back to basketball. If it’s going to help me be better on the court then I’ll do it.”
Included in all this is adopting a cooler, more level-headed demeanor, despite the pounding she takes in the paint.
“I just try to tell myself to try to stay calm, stay poised,” Zaire said. “Just think about the next stop and the next score. Next stop, next score. Just keep that mindset. I never want to get too high after a make, never want to get too low after a miss because I know that ultimately the ball is coming back in my hands. So I try to stay level-headed.”
The Jackets have four games left of the regular season and visit North Carolina on Thursday at 7 p.m. to kick off the stretch. Thursday’s game will be available on ACC Network Extra.