#TGW: Stepping Up and Stepping In
Short staffed Jackets find a way to overcome injuries in the WNIT
By Matt Winkeljohn
The Good Word
With Zaire O'Neal on crutches, it was easy to wonder before Thursday night's game against Elon if the Georgia Tech women's hoopsters might all fall down.
The visiting Phoenix might not strike fear into the hearts of fans, yet the Yellow Jackets looked as if they were about to open the WNIT in ashes. They had a surprise in store, though, and their early juice - driven in part by emotions generated by a recent run of injuries - set the Jackets afire.
A 3-pointer off the glass by Elon's Sam Coffer was good for an early 5-2 lead for Elon. From there, it was no contest.
Aaliyah Whiteside countered shortly with a trey, the first three of her 23 points, and a few minutes later a long shot by Kaela Davis finished off a 19-0 burst that might've been the Jackets' most impressive of the season.
Davis went on to score a game-high 24 points, and she and Whiteside each counted 17 in the first half for a 42-20 lead. That erased doubts about Tech's state of readiness after sophomore Katarina Vuckovic started for O'Neal, who tore a knee ligament in practice Tuesday, and Roddreka Rogers was limited by an ankle sprain.
The Jackets won 69-47 in McCamish Pavilion largely by taking off on a collective adrenaline rush the likes of which injury sometimes sets off.
"Obviously, you kind of put in the back of your head that we don't have Zaire so you kind of have to fill that void somewhere, somehow," Davis said. "We came out with a lot of energy, and I think everybody was on the same page. It was great to get everybody going."
Eventually, a wandering sense of concentration cropped up, but Tech (19-14) so thoroughly outclassed Elon (19-13) in that first half that a second half holding pattern was more than enough to trigger a Sunday matchup at Ole Miss.
Tech's lightened roster will be tasked against the Rebels, who often deploy 10 players or so, and their methodology may need to be different.
O'Neil has been the most steady and impressive of Tech's six freshmen while averaging 10.9 points and 6.1 rebounds and blocking a team-high 30 shots.
Rogers, who was fourth in the ACC in rebounding with 10.2 per game and a has a team-high 11 double-doubles this season - including some astonishing games - has a high ankle sprain that left her with a hitch in her gait during warm-ups.
With their leading rebounder hobbled, their third-leading rebounder out, and two legitimate post scorers off or out of the game, the Jackets changed.
Elon outscored Tech 26-18 in the paint, and while that was attributable largely to a 22-8 edge in a second half that saw Tech spin its wheels, the Jackets made up for elemental changes early by sticking shots and taking care of the ball.
They hit 15-of-28 from the field (53.6 percent) on the way to that 42-20 halftime lead, and turned the ball over just five times.
In ACC action, Tech shot 39.1 percent and averaged 16.8 turnovers.
Say this about the Jackets: they've learned to adjust.
Sure, the caliber of opponent mattered, yet the ball found its way to the right places often, and when either team missed shots, the Jackets banded together to rebound more than their fair share.
Davis had seven rebounds, freshman De'Ashia Jones grabbed six in a career-high 16 minutes off the bench, Rogers had six, Whiteside five, and Vuckovic four in 33 minutes (she averages 23).
"Going through the ACC we played the best teams in the country, so we're prepared for just about anything because we've played with a short bench all year," said head coach MaChelle Joseph. "We missed Zaire tremendously, but we had foul trouble virtually every game and we've learned to go without . . . players.
"Everybody stepped up and played their role. De'Ashia made some good passes. To get six points and seven rebounds in 16 minutes is a lot. She's taking advantage of her opportunity."
Avram played 10 minutes after playing a total of 16 in eight ACC games. She hit her only shot.
The juice ebbed among starters in the second half, however, as they combined to go 4-of-21 after striking on 15-of-26 before intermission.
That may not work at Ole Miss.
"With a big lead at halftime it can be a challenge, and we had a little bit of a slump coming out of halftime," Davis explained.
Tech will seek extended-release energy Sunday in Oxford against the Rebels.
"They're athletic, and very deep. They're used to these battles," Joseph said of the Rebels. "It's going to come down to staying out of foul trouble, and hopefully we can get Roddreka back."