#TGW: Next Woman Up
Short-handed Yellow Jackets stand together, stand tall heading into ACC play
By Jon Cooper
The Good Word
There’s no preparing for the unknown but there is adapting to it.
What athletes commonly, and more politely, refer to as adversity can either bring a team together or tear it apart.
When Georgia Tech (10-4) takes the floor tonight at the KFC Yum! Center to take on No. 7 Louisville (12-1) in its ACC Opener (tip-off is at 7 p.m.), they’ll do so knowing they face a big mountain, and that they don’t have all their weapons but that they can adapt by pulling together and can be successful as a team.
The Yellow Jackets proved they could do that earlier this week at the Georgia Tech Holiday Tournament. Down to nine players due to the unfortunate injury to senior two-guard Sydney Wallace and the bereavement leave for freshman point Antonia Peresson, Georgia Tech got star power from its star Kaela Davis and production aplenty from its bench in outlasting Louisiana Tech, 96-81.
“A lot of people stepped up,” said Davis the Tournament MVP (31.5 points and 6.5 rebounds in the two games), who enters play Friday night third in the ACC in scoring at (22.1 ppg). “I think we all know it’s tough losing [Wallace] so it was great to kind of see everybody step up and make plays. With a couple of people out that’s what you have to do, you have to come together, not split apart. We’re working it out.”
Davis did, and will be counted on to continue to be the lead dog and the player the Jackets look to for inspiration. An All-Freshman and Second-Team All-ACC performer as a freshman, Davis has already made a solid case for First-Team consideration and is laying the groundwork for Player of the Year. How she steps up in the face of the loss of Wallace will add to that statement.
She took charge of the Tournament Championship Game against Louisiana Tech, scoring a career-high 35 points in 38 minutes, shooting on 13-for-28 shooting (.464), and 7-for-7 from the line. Davis scored 12 straight points, eight of which came in a dizzying 82-second span of the first half, during which she single-handedly brought the Jackets back to within two from a 16-8 deficit.
Her leadership fired up the rest of the team. It’s what’s expected of her and what she expects from herself.
“I think I take a lot of pride in that,” she said. “It’s one of those things where we’re missing a few people. You have to find a way to make it work. I knew we had to come and match their energy, match their intensity and I think we did a good job of that.”
Davis’ fire lit the fuse for freshman forward Zaire O’Neil, who finished with 20 points (8-for-15, 4-for-5 from the line) and eight rebounds (four offensive, four defensive) and continues to state her case for All-ACC Freshman Team consideration, and point Imani Tilford, who had played five minutes all season before stepping up in the Tournament to play 30 minutes in the opener against Lipscomb, handing out six assists, grabbing three rebounds and making three steals, while earning a plus-22 rating, then logging 31 more minutes in the finale, handing out two more assists, grabbing career-bests with five rebounds and five steals and going 4-for-4 from the line. Both O’Neil and Davis earned All-Tournament Team honors.
“Coach has been talking about how players’ opportunities are going to come. Someone else’s problem that’s another person’s opportunity,” said Davis. “It’s great to see Zaire and Imani step up. It’s great to see freshmen step up and take on big roles. Everyone’s been working really hard. They earned that spot and they’re doing a great job with it.”
Junior guard Aaliyah Whiteside and sophomore Katarina Vuckovic also came up big against La. Tech. Whiteside went for 17 points, nine rebounds and three steals, while Vuckovic, primarily known for her three-point shooting, cleaned the glass, grabbing a career-high 13 rebounds, a career-best 11 on the defensive end.
Whiteside is expected to move into the starting backcourt against Louisville, which is 8-1 at home and brings a five-game winning streak into the game, while Davis shifts to the frontcourt. It’s next man up and Whiteside will look to continue to make the most of her opportunity.
“We talked about it before the [La. Tech] game, that somebody is going to get those extra shots that Sydney was getting. Someone is going to get those extra shots that Antonia was getting,” said Head Coach MaChelle Joseph. “Imani stepped up and played a great floor game again defensively. She did some great things offensively for us. Aaliyah Whiteside was tremendous on both ends of the floor.”
The Jackets, who likely will have Peresson back, will need more of that tremendous play from everybody as they begin Conference play with a brutal stretch. Five of the first seven games, including tonight’s against the Cardinals, are on the road. The Jackets also visit Boston College, No. 9 North Carolina, No. 4 Notre Dame, and Virginia. The five teams enter ACC play with a combined record of 54-11 (an .831 winning percentage). The two home games are no picnic, either, as Clemson is 8-5, while Pittsburgh is 10-3. Tech finishes the month against RV Florida State, who is a ACC-leading 13-1. Overall Georgia Tech’s opponents are a combined 85-20 (.810 winning percentage).
Davis believes the Jackets, who ride a three-game winning streak of their own, will be up to the challenge, regardless of what combination of players is on the floor. The experience gained by the role players this past week was especially big.
“I think for them to come out and play the way they did helps people feel confident,” said Davis. “When they maybe hit a downpoint they can think back to [the Louisiana Tech] game and say, ‘Hey, this is something we can do and we know we can pull it out.’”
Similarly, Davis plans to draw on experience she gained during her maiden voyage through the ACC.
“I’m super-excited,” she said. “It’s great to be able to take everything I learned from last year and apply it to this year. Coming off a good first half of the season, carrying that into the second part of the season is exciting. Especially the way everyone is stepping up and playing.”
GEORGIA TECH SCORING LEADER: Kaela Davis, 21.2 ppg
LOUISVILLE SCORING LEADER: Mariya Moore, 13.2 ppg
GEORGIA TECH REBOUNDING LEADER: Roddreka Rogers, 9.3 rpg
LOUISVILLE REBOUNDING LEADER: Sara Hammond, 6.5 rpg
GEORGIA TECH ASSISTS LEADER: Aaliyah Whiteside, 2.2 apg
LOUISVILLE ASSISTS LEADER: Jude Schimmel, 3.6 apg
GEORGIA TECH SCORING: 77.7 ppg
OPPONENT: 63.6 ppg
LOUISVILLE SCORING: 82.2 ppg
OPPONENT: 55.7 ppg
LOUISVILLE PLAYER TO WATCH: Mariya Moore - She’s not to be confused with Maya Moore...yet, but the 6-0 freshman is certainly off to a magnificent start. The Cardinals’ leading scorer, she comes in ranked 19th in the ACC in scoring (13.2 ppg) and eighth in steals (1.8 spg.). She’s the only freshman to be in the top 20 in scoring and the top 10 in assists. She’s also in the top 10 in assist-to-turnover ratio (3.7, fourth), one of two first-year players to rank that high. She hits the boards, pulling in 4.7 rebounds per game and has 10 double-figure-scoring games. She recorded her first double-double on Nov. 28 against Lafayette.
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