Freshman point guard Imani Tilford ain't backin' down from anybody
By Jon Cooper
The Good Word
The bandage on the center of Imani Tilford's forehead and how she got it says a lot about her.
"I stole the ball and we were going for it and we head-butted. It was one of the practice players," said the Greenburgh, N.Y., native. "It was his first day there."
At 5-5, the freshman point guard may be the smallest player on a Yellow Jackets team that features seven players at least 6-0 and two others at least 5-10 -- even the team's other point guard, freshman Antonia Peresson, is 5-8 -- but spotting inches in height is about all she's ever going to give.
It comes from being an only child and playing against her male cousins, who were like her brothers.
"Basketball became the love of my life when I started playing with my cousins," she said. "The definitely toughened me up. I tell everybody, `It's way harder to get past a boy than to get past a girl.' So if you get past a boy you can get past anybody."
Of course, sometimes she'll simply try to go through. That poor practice player didn't know to back off, not knowing that Tilford sure as heck wasn't going to. He knows now.
Teams around the ACC are starting to notice as well.
It may be Tilford's first rodeo as far as ACC play goes, but she's shown a knack of taking freshman lumps and simply getting back up when she gets bucked. No. 9 Florida State was the latest to throw her from the horse, topping Tech, 82-62, Friday night at McCamish Pavilion.
"She's shown me some toughness. She's got some resilience," said Joseph. "One of the things I've been working on with her has been attacking the basket on dribble-penetration. I think she's very quick and can get to the rim. She's strong. Tonight she was able to draw some fouls for us and made a layup, a three-point play. She made her free throws. I think she, defensively, gives us so much because she plays so hard."
"She doesn't back down. She's like a little Tazmanian Devil," added guard Kaela Davis. "I think that's what we need. We need that spark with her coming off the bench and I think she's done a great job developing her role and picking us up defensively."
In 22 minutes Friday night, Tilford scored a career-high seven points, one more than she had in the previous six games combined, while going 5-for-5 from the line, also a career-best -- she was the only Jacket not to miss from the charity stripe -- with two boards. Most important, she gave the Yellow Jackets a spark and helped make a game out of what early on looked like it would be an early KO for the `Noles.
"You have to learn how to show up and play the first five minutes against a top-10 team," said Joseph. "You have to punch them in the mouth. WE got punched and got back on our heels. We have to be more aggressive for 40 minutes."
After scoring the game's first basket :34 seconds in, the Jackets would not get another for nearly 10 minutes, as FSU opened a 21-3 lead. They still trailed 27-11 with 6:04 to go in the half, when the Jackets started to cut into the lead.
A Tilford three-point play following a hard drive to the basket started a 12-5 run over the next 2:08 as Tech got to within single digits at 32-23.
"We knew we had to make stops and make some shots," said Tilford. "That's what Coach teaches in practice. When somebody hits you you have to hit them back twice as hard. Never fall back. Basketball is a game of runs. They get a run, we get a run. Never stop."
The Jackets didn't stop, but were unable to make enough stops defensively and wouldn't get any closer the rest of the way, with FSU pulling away late. The ACC's top rebounding team, the Seminoles outrebounded the Jackets, 48-36, and had a 23-21 edge on the offensive boards. The Jackets had out-rebounded opponents 15 times and were 13-2 in those games. The Seminoles also had their three-point shot working, going 9-for-16 from three.
"They're the best rebounding team in the ACC," said Joseph. "We consider ourselves a pretty good rebounding team and we've only been out-rebounded a handful of times this year. But they have size and athleticism that outworked us for the ball several times. They just have the depth that kind of wore us down on the boards."
That depth also showed up offensively, as despite limiting FSU starters Morgan Jones and Brittany Brown to a combined 3-for-14 and six points -- 10 points below their season average coming in), Tech got burned by reserves Emiah Bingley, who scored 15 points on 5-for-5 from three, and Shakayla Thomas, who added 13 on 6-for-7 shooting. Bingley and Thomas had combined for 14.5. FSU lit it up from three, shooting 9-for-17, 56.3 percent, 57.1 in the opening half.
"They had the hot hand, but they also banked like three shots in, so you know that they were feeling pretty good," Joseph said.
Joseph feels the Jackets should feel pretty good about some things as they face a 36-hour turnaround before hosting Virginia Tech Sunday afternoon at 2:00 p.m.
"We've been playing pretty good basketball over the last couple of weeks. Tonight we just didn't shoot the ball well," she said. "We shot 24 percent in first half and 34 of their points at halftime were either second-chance points or points in transition off our misses. It's hard to defend for 20 minutes in transition. You've got to make shots to be able to set your defense. I thought that really hurt us in the first half. The second half we were able to set our defense, make more shots. We shot 40 percent in the second half, so our defense was better."
"There's a lot to grow on here because we played a bad game and they played a very good game and miss 10 free throws," she added. "So it's one of those things where we've got a quick turnaround, we've got to take the lessons we learned from this game and we have to translate them into Sunday's game against Virginia Tech. One of the things that we did was we continued to fight." Joseph, who discovered Tilford at an AAU game, and who knows about toughness in a point guard, can count on getting plenty of fight from Tilford, in whom she sees one of her recent great point guards.
"She reminds me a lot of `Meme' Walthour when she was a freshman," said Joseph. "It seemed like in February she came into her own in her freshman year and never looked back."
The hard-nosed -- and hard-headed -- Tilford won't be looking back. They're determined to bounce back Sunday.
"We just have to come out harder and play like we play all the time. We just didn't come out as hard as we can. Like Coach said, We weren't `Locked in,'" she said. "We just weren't hitting shots tonight. It happens sometimes. It just happened to happen to us today.
"This team, our bond is unbreakable," she added. "We just have to stay together. We can't have everybody doing their own thing. As long as we stay together we'll be good."