#TGW: There's a Train A Comin'...
O'Neil, determined Yellow Jackets nearly derail No. 4 Notre Dame
By Jon Cooper
The Good Word
Thursday night at McCamish Pavilion is an example of why patience is virtuous, and why a long journey can be rewarding, even if it’s not always great in the moment.
Georgia Tech (14-13, 4-9) gave No. 4 Notre Dame (25-2, 12-1) all it wanted before the Fighting Irish pulled away late, falling, 71-61, in a game much closer than the final score indicated.
Playing with a shortened bench — every starter played at least 30 minutes while the three players off the bench combined for 24 — the Jackets put together a tremendous effort in nearly forging the upset and halting N.D.’s winning streak at 11.
“I was very pleased with our effort tonight, especially on the defensive end,” said Coach MaChelle Joseph, whose team held Notre Dame to it’s third-lowest point total in ACC play this season. “It felt like we did a really good job defensively and I felt we were pretty competitive on the boards.
“It’s one of those things where we’re battling night in and night out with the top teams in the country but we’re just a little shorthanded,” Joseph continued. “Give Notre Dame credit. I thought Jewell Loyd, in the second half, took over the game and made key shots when her team needed her to.”
Freshman forward Zaire O’Neil scored a team-high 20 points, Kaela Davis, who played all 40 minutes, added 19, and junior forward Roddreka Rogers recorded her eighth double-double of the season (12 points, 14 rebounds) to lead the Jackets.
Thursday night had some of the same frustrations for the young Jackets, including difficulty at the foul line (11-for-17), but this loss didn’t seem to hurt as much as there was a lot to be happy about. The Jackets led for all but 1:26 of the first half, and sent Notre Dame into intermission down 34-33, thanks to a late three-pointer by Katarina Vuckovic. It was only the fifth time all season Notre Dame trailed or went into the half tied.
“In the first half we shot 45 percent. Second half we shot 28,” said Joseph. “We play so hard and it’s hard for us to sustain that for two halves with seven people.”
Rogers reluctantly agreed that fatigue became an issue.
“The media timeouts helped us a lot,” said Rogers. “We were tired but we still kept playing, There wasn’t anything that was holding us back. We wanted to win the game so bad. We kept fighting. The tiredness was out the window at that point.”
Long gone out the window is the idea that this young team isn’t ready to compete with the elite and often more-experienced ACC teams. They’re still young and still making youthful mistakes, but they’re finding their way.
While on-court senior leadership has been a non-issue since Dec. 29th, when guard Sydney Wallace, the team’s lone senior, suffered a season-ending knee injury, on-court senior-like leadership has been in abundance, and has come from numerous sources.
With opposing teams determined make Davis’ life miserable on a nightly basis, others have been forced to step up.
On Thursday night, Notre Dame Coach Muffet McGraw, a women’s basketball Hall of Famer, six-time conference coach of the year and current ACC Coach of the Year, was drawing up the X’s and O’s for sensational freshman forward Briana Turner and ACC Player of the Year candidate Jewell Loyd.
“They played a box and one and a triangle and two most of the night on Kaela Davis and face-guarded her and harassed her pretty much for 40 minutes,” said Joseph. “I thought she played the best defensive game of her career at Georgia Tech tonight guarding one of the best players in the country. I thought she was all over the floor. She didn’t get fatigued. She played 40 minutes and they were chasing her the entire 40 minutes.”
With Davis giving her all just to get touches, and junior Aaliyah Whiteside enduring a tough shooting night (1-for-11, 0-for-3 from three), due in no small part from chasing Loyd around, Tech needed someone else to step up. O’Neil did that.
She on both ends of the floor, recording her eighth straight double-digit-scoring game and third 20-point game, while adding a pair of emphatic blocks, her seventh multi-block game and fourth straight (she has 16 in that span), and a career-high three steals.
“She’s only a freshman? I told her I was hoping she was graduating,” McGraw said, with a laugh. “She’s strong and she really uses her body well. She is a little bit undersized but she uses it so well. She’s smart, she gets you up in the air, she got a couple of three-point plays. We were trying to take away her left hand and she came back with the spin to the right. I don’t know why it was so hard to guard her except that she caught it a little bit off the blocks so we couldn’t really front her. She was a tough matchup for our posts.”
O’Neil’s rise has freed Rogers inside.
“Zaire’s been great. I’m really proud of her,” said Rogers. “She’s really stepped up as a freshman, scoring all those points, playing defense. For both of us, we know that we need an inside game so we both try our best to help the team any way we can to get post points.
“Instead of me getting double-teamed all the time, it comes to her sometimes. So we get to play back and forth,” she added. “If I’m double-teamed I look for her. If she’s double-teamed she’ll look for me. We just play together.”
Rogers believes the entire team is coming together and that when the ACC Tournament begins, teams at the top are going to be aware, and wary of playing Georgia Tech.
“I think one of the things we’ve continued to do is just focus on getting better every game,” said Joseph. “Once we lost Sydney Wallace and Nariah Taylor with injuries, it was one of those things where night in and night out we’re going to compete and we’re going to try to get better every day. That’s one of the things I’m really proud of. I feel like over the last couple of weeks we’ve continued to grow and get better. This is a year for us to get great experience and quality minutes for some young players and really grow as a team and learn how to battle in the ACC.”
“I just feel like our team chemistry has gotten a lot better,” added Rogers. “We’re playing so well as a team now. There’s nothing stopping us. We just need to finish off the game. We’ll be good for the ACC Tournament.”