Senior Aaliyah Whiteside right where she wants to be carrying her team on her back
No one has ever had to tell Aaliyah Whiteside to lead.
She has simply known to do so and always has.
In high school at Central High School in Memphis, Tenn., Whiteside captained for two years, the second resulting in a TSSAA AAA State championship for the school.
In her three previous seasons at Georgia Tech, she did her leading primarily by example as a supporting player.
But this season, her final one on the Flats, Whiteside has not only continued to lead by example, but also has produced at a nearly unprecedented rate in program history, standing firmly in the spotlight as Tech’s No. 1 option while also being opposing teams' top defensive priority.
Neither pressure has stopped her.
With seven games remaining in the regular season Whiteside leads the ACC in scoring with 21.1 ppg, almost a bucket better than the nearest player, Duke’s Azura Stevens, at 19.3. She’s third in free throw percentage (83.5), eighth in rebounding (7.4 rpg) and defensive rebounds (4.6 drbg, and 10th in offensive rebounds (2.8 orbg). She’s turned her game up in ACC play, as her 22.6 ppg lead the conference, up 1.3 on Stevens, her 88.3 FTA are good for second, while remaining consistent on the boards -- her 7.0 RPG rank 12th, her 4.4 DRPG are 11th, and her 2.6 ORPG are ninth.
Perhaps the most important of any statistical categories is her third-place ranking in minutes per game, at 35.9, only 1.1 behind the conference leader, and her ACC-leading 38.0 MPG in conference games.
“It feels good to to see your name in a category at the top of the ACC, one of the greatest conferences,” admitted Whiteside, “But I’ve got to focus on the next game and start all over again like I haven’t scored. It’s a new slate every game.”
Want to talk about saving your best for last? Whiteside has raised her scoring average this season by almost nine points a game from her previous career-best of 13.4, last season, is pulling down a rebound more, and is having her best season shooting, from the field and the line (she’s hitting over 83 percent in crunch time).
“Aaliyah has been the most consistent player in the ACC all year long,” said Georgia Tech Head Coach MaChelle Joseph. “She’s been hitting tough shots all year. She’s had two, three people hanging on her and making shots all year.”
She’s remained as mentally tough as ever, even on the rare occasion she isn’t making her shots. Against No. 3 Notre Dame on Jan. 28 at McCamish Pavilion, Whiteside scored only 12 points, on 3-for-14, 0-for-3 from three, although 6-for-6 from the line. It was her lowest scoring game since scoring eight against Alabama on Dec. 18 -- her first game back after illness kept her from practicing. But Aaliyah used neither illness for the Bama game nor anything Notre Dame threw at her, and they threw a lot at her -- Coach Muffet McGraw admitted to playing a lot of zone and keeping bigger players on her -- as an excuse.
There’s no place for excuses in her world.
“I’ve just got to show up better for my team,” she said after the 54-42 loss. “I’ve definitely got to make more shots and lead the team. It was just me not making shots. I just have to make those shots. I will. I’ll be ready next game.”
She was true to her word
Whiteside scored 17 points, including a rock solid 5-for-6 from the line -- the third of which was the 431st of her career, moving her past Joyce Pierce (1991-93) and making her the school’s career leader.
The next milestone could come as soon as Thursday, as she heads into the game at Cassell Coliseum against Virginia Tech with 1,400 points, just 23 away from moving past Kate Brandt and into the school’s top 10 all-time in scoring.
While some might consider all this “a dream season,” Whiteside simply considers it where she expected to be.
“I would say it was my time and was my time to step up,” she said. “I just feel like it’s my year moreso than like a dream because I always knew I could do it. I just had to grow into that and mature into that player. I wanted to build off the junior year I had and have a great senior year. Every game we play, it’s the last time we’re playing that game. You’ve just got to leave it all out there.”
Whiteside has been producing at an almost unheard of rate for Georgia Tech. Heading into Thursday night’s game, Whiteside is accounting for more than 34 percent of the Jackets’ points in conference games, has scored in double-figures in 28 of the last 29 games, and has gone for at least 21 points 15 times (the 15 20-point games lead the ACC; she has 22 20-point games in her career), 13 times getting to double-figures by halftime.
“I didn’t realize it was that much but I think out of the offense, I just try to score,” she said. “I don’t want to force anything so I think it just comes instead of forcing it or taking too many shots. Just trying to work it through the offense.”
Whiteside has been the consummate team player in achieving these scoring numbers, as she leads the team in assists (63) -- she’s tied for third with 14 helpers in ACC play. She also doesn’t mind getting dirty, as she leads the team in rebounding, offensive rebounding and defensive rebounding and is three ORBs behind fellow senior Roddreka Rogers from holding all three category leads in conference play.
“It feels good to get everybody else involved,” she said. “I know we can’t win with just me. We need two or three other people to step up offensively. So I definitely want to hit everybody when they’re open. Rebounding, I’ve got to help on the boards because we’re not the biggest team.”
Against Boston College, Whiteside got help offensively, as junior Katarina Vuckovic scored a team-high 18. It was only the eighth time Whiteside did NOT lead the team in scoring.
Getting that kind of help could be a difference-maker the rest of the way for Tech and help Whiteside lead the way to a memorable finish to her career -- she is set to graduate in May, with a degree in Business and a concentration in Human Resource Management. She’s excited about the prospect of what lies ahead -- on the court and off.
“I get a little bit nervous about the future and I think about it but I always want to come in and go strong for these last games,” she said. “It’s going to be interesting getting to that time. I’m excited. I’m trying to keep being a leader and lead this team because we still can turn it around. There are some positives. We’ve been in every game. We just have to finish the game.”
Whiteside has even occasionally allowed herself to look ahead to the days to come after college. Those plans include extending her playing days.
“I’ve thought about [the WNBA]. That’s a basketball player’s dream,” she said. “I’ll think about it more after the season. It definitely would be an honor to play in it. In an ideal world I’d like to play professionally for a while then maybe coach after that. In an ideal world. I’m excited about the next journey.”