Women’s basketball is one, excited to build on summer as practice begins
By Jon Cooper
The Good Word
A team is as strong as its weakest link.
Good luck finding a weak link, never mind the weakest one, on Georgia Tech women’s basketball team.
The squad, which begins practice for the 2017-18 season on Sunday morning, returns four starters and nine players overall -- all of whom were part of the rotation -- from last year’s team that won 22 games, 8-of-11 down the stretch, and took Michigan to triple-overtime before finally falling in the WNIT Championship game.
They’re hungry, and together, they're determined to build on last season’s success.
“I’m really excited,” said senior point guard Imani Tilford, who had a breakout season, setting career-bests in just about every category from games, to starts, to points, to three-point field goals made (she made the first eight of her career), assists and assists-to-turnovers. “This being the first practice of my final year, it’s nerve wracking but it's also exciting because you get to go in and try to do something that you’ve never done before -- both me and my class. We’re looking forward to playing with the new players. We’ve built a strong bond and chemistry over the summer. It’s very exciting.”
“We’ve improved skill wise, being more in shape, just having that sense of commitment,” said senior forward Zaire O’Neil, who led the Jackets with career-highs of 12.7 ppg and .505 shooting, and, with redshirt senior forward Elo Edeferioka, forms one of the ACC’s most devastating 1-2 punches in the paint. “Everyone’s really committed to getting better so I feel like we’re in a really good place and have put ourselves in a position to win a lot of games and do something that has never been done before.”
This senior class, which also features long-range threat Antonia Peresson at two-guard, is driven to earn a spot in the NCAA Tournament.
“Our seniors will not be denied,” said head coach MaChelle Joseph, who prepares to start her 15th season at the helm and looks for her 10th 20-win season. “They are focused on leaving it on the floor every minute of every day! We have an urgency and that is because our seniors won't accept anything less. We’re excited about 2017-18 and the challenging schedule that's ahead.”
The key to getting where they want to go -- the road to Final Four, which will be held this year in Columbus, Ohio -- officially starts at McCamish Pavilion today but may actually trace back to where the team was over the summer.
“Italy gave us an opportunity to grow as a team on and off the floor,” said Joseph. “We found our identity as a team.”
The Jackets went 4-0 and even beat one European club that clubbed perennial power UConn a few days later.
“We had a great time just getting to know each other more, trying to build chemistry for the upcoming season,” said Tilford. “We have the same team, so just getting back on the court with each other was a plus. In the last game, we were down and bouncing back and coming from being down and winning that game was very good for us.”
The trip was very, very good for Italian-born sophomore guard Francesca Pan, who, with Peresson, not only got to bond with the team but also got to show off her home country.
“I was gone for the summer because of the National Team so I think the trip to Italy helped me to create chemistry with every player on the team, the freshmen, too,” she said. “We were together 24 hours a day. Everything we did was with the team so it helped me to get close with them.”
Pan missed out on the team’s summer activities in Atlanta, as she was in Portugal, playing with Italy’s National Team in the U20 Women’s European Championship. She led the team in scoring (13.3 ppg) and three-point shooting (2.0 per game) and was second in minutes (30.4 mpg) and field goals (4.5 per game) despite only playing four of the teams seven games, due to an ankle injury that forced her to sit out final games of the tournament
Pan rested most of the rest of the summer, including Georgia Tech’s four-games in Italy, but will be firing on all cylinders as camp begins. She’s expecting to do more in year two than she did in year one -- a tough task, as she won ACC Rookie of the Week five times, and was named ACC Freshman of the Year.
“I’m super-excited because (the first practice) means the season is coming,” she said. “Last year I was a freshman, so I didn’t know what to expect in practice and during the games. This year, now that I know what’s going on, I’d like to be a better presence on the court, help my teammates and help the freshmen because I know what being a freshman means. I want to be more of a presence on the team. I have faith in this team. I think we’re so good and we can do great things.”
It all starts today.
For O’Neil and Tilford, Sunday marks one of their many “first-lasts” they’ll have this season.
More important that it marks the opening lines of the final chapter in the legacy they’ll leave on the program and one last chance to make a mark on the players that’ll carry the torch once they graduate -- players like fearless junior guard Kaylan Pugh, versatile sophomore guard Chanin Scott, sophomore defensive forward Anne Francoise Diouf, and the entire incoming freshmen class, ranked 16th in the nation by ProspectsNation and 18th by Collegiate Girls Basketball Report.
Tilford’s approach is simple.
“Just keep pushing them and encouraging them to do better, get better every day,” she said. “We’ve played with them when we were in Italy, so it’s not like they’re new to us. So they just feed off of our energy and the energy that we bring.”
O’Neil feels lack of energy shouldn’t be an issue with the newcomers.
“They’ve definitely brought a lot of energy to our team. Every single freshman is challenging us for playing time,” she said. “It’s fun to have people who want to get better, who want to learn from you. They’re always asking, ‘What can I do better?’ I’m asking them the same question. So we’re bouncing ideas off each other, which creates better chemistry.”
The unit grew really close when things got really tough during summer workouts.
“Coach Jo and Scott McDonald, our strength and conditioning coach, have taken the extra step to push us way more than we’ve been pushed since I’ve been here,” said O’Neil. “There have been some tough days, just being physically drained. I feel like it’s got us to a great point.”
That physically drained feeling took the seniors back to their very first workout.
“I don’t remember too much about it, actually, but I do remember that it was very hard,” said Tilford, with a laugh.
“It was overwhelming, knowing that the season was about to start, that you didn’t have much time and ‘this is the first official practice so you really have to prove yourself,’” recalled O’Neil. “It could make you very anxious. But now it’s like I’m relaxed, I’m poised. I know what to look forward to going into practice. I would much rather be in the position that I’m in now for first practice than freshman year.”
The seniors expect to experience some deja vu on Sunday when they see the faces on this year’s freshmen.
“It’s funny to see it now because they think their struggles are new struggles,” said O’Neil, with a laugh. “I’m like, ‘We’ve all been through this. We’ve all had this face. We’ve all been tired and worn out.’ You just learn how to push through it.”