Ain’t It Grand!
Zaire O’Neil has powered her way to Georgia Tech’s 30th 1,000-point scorer
By Jon Cooper
The Good Word
For four years, Zaire O’Neil has made her living in the paint, where nothing comes easy -- especially points.
It’s a tough way to make a living but O’Neil has shown with a special kind of toughness on the court and great tenacity off it.
Last Sunday afternoon against South Carolina State at McCamish Pavilion, that toughness and tenacity paid off for the 5-11 forward, as she put herself in a special place in Georgia Tech women’s basketball history, becoming only the 30th Yellow Jacket to record 1,000 points.
“It’s very exciting knowing that I’m the 30th person in Georgia Tech history to do that. That’s a great accomplishment,” said the Newark, N.J. native and Malcolm X Shabazz High School star. “It just shows how far I’ve come, how hard I’ve worked and just how the position that Coach Jo and our strength and conditioning coach have put me in to get back and recover from an ACL injury and get back and be full go and get to that point.”
It was a point that was anything but a given after O’Neil suffered the knee injury at the end of her sensational freshman season. It was a potentially devastating blow to the 19-year-old, who had been devastating on the floor, playing in 31 games, starting 21 of them, averaging 11.3 points (29th in the ACC), 5.8 rebounds, 1.6 and 1.2 blocks (12th in the ACC -- her 36 swats led the team), with 10.9 points and 6.1 boards in ACC play.
She’d miss the first nine games of her sophomore season and work her way back, leading to a sensational junior season that saw her return to form, playing in all 37 games, making 26 starts, averaging 12.9 points, 5.7 rebounds (grabbing 212 boards, 109 off the offensive end), and 1.7 assists in 24.1 minutes -- all career highs. She had 24 double-figure-scoring games, seven of them 20-point games. In the WNIT, O’Neil had four double-figure games, including a 20-point, 16-rebound double-double against Washington State in the semifinal and a 21-point, nine-rebound game in the championship game at Michigan.
Completing the road to recovery said all anyone would need to know about her toughness and her commitment.
O’Neil’s gratitude to those around her for her comeback illustrates the person behind the player.
“My family and the support I have here at Tech, they really pushed me to be better, especially after the injury,” she said. “It just showed that if these people have this much confidence in me and they knew what I was capable of and they’re trying to push me to get back and beyond where I can, why not give it 100 percent, 110 percent to get back to that point?”
Head coach MaChelle Joseph recognized the accomplishment following the 86-40 blowout.
“It was a great day for Zaire O’Neil, to get her 1,000th point,” said Joseph, who has now coached 13 members of Georgia Tech’s 1,000-point club. “It was the way that she did it that made it special, the fact that she was really unselfish to start the game, made a lot of extra passes to get her teammates involved.”
O’Neil dished out assists on two of the three possessions preceding her jump shot with 1:16 remaining in the first quarter that gave her 1,000-career points.
The circumstances surrounding that basket scream “Team Player!” starting with it coming on a jump shot.
“I’ll always remember that basket because I was on the right side and it was a jump shot, which I’m trying to get into,” she said, breaking into a smile. “I’ve been trying to shoot a lot more jump shots in games.”
Then there’s her passing -- the assists and distribution prior to the bucket. That’s not always easy when you can take over a game the way O’Neil has shown she can and as she did Wednesday night in the Jackets’ 86-48 rout of Kennesaw State when she scored eight points in a 13-0 first quarter burst that put the game away early.
“My teammates told me, ‘When you go in there, do what you do,’” she said. “They gave me the ball and they put me in a position to score, so it wouldn’t happen if it wasn’t for them.”
While her teammates continued to “let the big dog eat,” O’Neil stressed that this wasn’t force-feeding but simply riding the hot hand.
“We’re like that with anybody,” she said. “If somebody’s hot from three we’re trying to continue to get her the ball. So as a good team we pick up on who’s hot and try to get them the ball as much as possible.”
O’Neil enjoys reciprocating, by kicking the ball out to the perimeter to make opponents pay for packing the paint.
“I love getting it to them because I know they’re going to knock it down,” she said. “It just builds confidence for everyone.”
O’Neil wasn’t always the confident force she is today. She remembers how nervous she was prior to her first game and even recalls her first basket, which came at the 14:47 mark of her first collegiate game at Loyola Chicago on Nov. 14, 2014, 37 seconds into her first collegiate appearance.
“I definitely remember because me, Antonia (Peresson) and Imani (Tilford) were super-excited. We were in the hotel room and we couldn’t sleep,” she recalled, with a laugh. “We were up just trying to memorize the game plan. That was a fun game.”
O’Neil also remembers how important it was to listen to and be around older, more experienced teammates. Her freshman year, she got to be around three players that would make it to the 1,000-point club -- forward Aaliyah Whiteside and guard Sydney Wallace, both four-year Jackets, and guard Kaela Davis.
“They passed the torch,” O’Neil said. “Aaliyah and Syd, Syd still comes and plays against us every day and challenges us to be better. Even when Kaela was here she gave us great advice. I’m happy that I could join that club with them.”
O’Neil looks at sophomore guard Francesca Pan, who already is almost halfway there, and the incoming class as future potential 1,000-point scorers to whom she can pass the torch and has advice for them as far as reaching the milestone.
“Just keep working. Keep pushing yourself,” she said. “Coach Jo is going to push you above and beyond your limits and that’s so you can get to a point like this. Trust the process and allow it to come to you.”
She can’t wait to come home this weekend, when the Yellow Jackets visit Princeton, looking to go 4-0.
“It’s going to be really exciting,” she said. “Just to be able to show my teammates what me and Imani have been around our whole life, because we’ll be taking a trip to Times Square and doing things of that sort. It’s just amazing to be able to get to go back home and show people where I come from and where I live. It will be good to see my family -- my grandmother, my brother, all my family is coming. I feel like it’s going to be about 40, 50 people, at least for me, that are coming to the game already. So it’ll be fun.”