Freshman point guard Kierra Fletcher rising in confidence, enjoying the ACC gauntlet
By Jon Cooper
The Good Word
The road through the ACC is difficult and intimidating.
It’s exponentially more difficult and intimidating navigating it for the first time.
Now throw in trying to do it while learning a new position and new teammates.
Finally, just for fun, start by playing the No. 3 team in the country, then your conference archrival three days later.
Sound like fun?
It does to Kierra Fletcher, Georgia Tech’s freshman point guard whose ACC-opening weekend included an emotionally draining 74-71 loss to No. 3 Louisville on Dec. 28, then a bounce-back 66-33 trouncing of Clemson three days later.
“It’s definitely fun,” said the 5-9 native of Warren, Mich. “Just knowing that you’re going to have a tight game every single game, you have to leave your all out there. That’s what makes it fun.”
Fletcher has had a blast and, in the process has shown signs of breaking out in a big way. Fletcher heads into the 2018 portion of Georgia Tech’s season averaging 5.7 points, 4.1 rebounds, 1.9 assists and 1.1 steals, but in her two ACC games is at 11.0 points, 6.5 rebounds, 2.0 assists and 2.0 steals. In addition, she’s shooting 60 percent (9-for-15), and 80 percent from the line (4-for-5). That’s up from 42.6 and 47.2 from non-conference play.
In the Clemson game she didn’t miss a shot -- 5-for-5, 3-for-3 from the line -- and pulled down a team-high-tying six defensive rebounds (forward Zaire O’Neil also had six defensive boards), and had a 3:1 assist-to-turnover ratio.
Fletcher has become the kind of game-changer Georgia Tech coach MaChelle Joseph felt she could be when she moved the lifelong two-guard to the point and the kind Tech hasn’t seen in a while.
“I think she’s just gotten comfortable,” said Joseph. “She finally understands her role and where her points can come from but she doesn’t do it in a selfish way. She’s getting her teammates involved, she’s learned the balance between running the team and scoring. That’s hard to do. That’s hard to do as a freshman in this league.”
Fletcher admits that finding that balance was difficult and required the expertise of Joseph, one of the greatest scoring points in Big Ten history.
“When I expressed my concern about that she told me that I just have to find that balance of taking shots and getting shots and finding my teammates,” said Fletcher. “It was a challenge at first adjusting to the point guard position but Coach Jo and I have been talking throughout the season and she’s been helping me build my confidence up because she wants a scoring point guard. She saw that in me. So I’m just taking it one game at a time to slowly but surely come into my own. I feel like right now I’m doing a good job of that but I have to keep getting better.”
Joseph sees a more confident Fletcher running the show.
“She just seems to be very confident,” she said. “We were playing against Louisville and she came out, she was very aggressive, she didn’t get on her heels and I thought (Clemson) was another example of what she can do. Even on the defensive end, just her size, being able to switch all five positions.
“We haven’t had a big point guard like that in a long time,” she added. “The other thing is she does a great job rebounding, a phenomenal job rebounding for a point guard. So that’s really important.”
With her growing confidence, Fletcher is displaying all the facets of her game -- an all-around game that at Cousino High School, saw her average 23.5 points, 12.8 rebounds, 6.2 assists, 5.2 steals and 2.1 blocks as a senior and resulted in a pair of conference titles, and a first state championship.
Her continued development will be big for the Jackets, who showed their resilience against Clemson and are growing in confidence as a team following the effort against Louisville.
“I was pleased defensively with the way we responded after the loss to Louisville,” said Joseph. “You always worry about an emotional hangover after a tough loss like that. Hopefully for the team it makes them understand that we are three points away from being a top-25 team.
“We’ve got to learn how to finish out games, we’ve got to learn how to execute when the game’s on the line,” Joseph added. “I thought that experience against Louisville really helped us. We’ve got to come out night in and night out and we’ve got to execute. We’ve got to steal one back now. We lost one at home, now we have to go steal one back on the road. We’ve got a big task ahead of us at Syracuse on Thursday night.”
“We learned from the Louisville game that we can definitely play with anybody in the conference,” said Fletcher. “We knew that we had to come in and have a bounce-back ability because we played the No. 3 team in the country. So we just left it all on the floor to build momentum going into the new year.”
The new year begins in the same tough manner the old year ended. The Jackets play their first conference road game of the season, at Syracuse, then come home to McCamish to host No. 2 Notre Dame on Sunday afternoon.
A key will be playing a full 40 minutes as they did against Clemson.
“We talked about we have to play four quarters. (Clemson was) the first time in a long time that we’ve won all four quarters against a quality opponent,” said Joseph, whose team won all four quarters against the Tigers, fifth time this season they’ve done so but the first since Dec. 19 against Charleston Southern -- they’ve won three quarters seven other games and have won at least two quarters in all but one game. “I think it’s really important that going down the stretch, that we do a much better job of playing for 40 minutes and not playing 30 minutes.
”In this league you can’t take a minute off. You take a minute off and you’re down 10,” Joseph added. “I’m trying to teach them the urgency of winning. I think a key for us right now is the play we’re getting out of Kierra. We knew all along that if she could get to where we needed her to be by January we could have a special team. We need to be ready to play on Thursday night in Syracuse, I can tell you that. That’s going to be a tough challenge for us.”
Fletcher will be ready on Thursday and for every challenge that awaits the rest of the way. She’s excited in anticipation of each one.
“That's what the ACC is all about. It’s going to be a challenge every single game,” she said. “You can’t sleep on anyone. But we’re ready. We’re taking it one practice at a time, one day at a time and I think we’re going to do great.”