Improving Every Minute
Women’s basketball looking good at 8-1, doing things they hadn’t before
By Jon Cooper
The Good Word
One goal Georgia Tech women’s basketball’s players set for the 2017-18 season was “do something that hadn’t been done before at Georgia Tech.”
Head coach MaChelle Joseph, never one to think small, liked their moxy in seeking that but also called it “a tough mountain to climb.”
Ten games into the season, the Yellow Jackets are taking steps to scale that mountain, having already accomplished the kinds of little goals that could add up to accomplishing bigger ones and reaching the summit.
As the Jackets head into Sunday’s game against Sun Belt Conference preseason favorite UT-Arlington (tip-off at McCamish Pavilion is set for 2 p.m.), they are 9-1. It’s the seventh such start in program history, the third time they’ve managed such a 10-game start in the MaChelle Joseph Era and the first time since 2007-08 (last year’s team came close, starting 8-1).
“I would say we’ve started well so far,” said senior guard Imani Tilford. “It’s been a tough stretch having to play so many games in a short period of time, so I would say it’s a great start for us. Winning the Big Ten/ACC Challenge was something that we [seniors] hadn’t done before. So I think it’s been a great start.”
That win over Purdue, as they did, 68-55, Nov. 30 at McCamish Pavilion, marked the first win for Joseph over her alma mater in three tries (the first try at home) and was the first ‘W’ in the Challenge for this senior class.
Completing firsts is starting to become a trend -- the kind of trend special teams make a habit.
Take their 48-45 win last Sunday afternoon over Middle Tennessee State, for example.
“I honestly believe that a sign of a good team is when you can play bad and win, especially when you’re playing a very good team, a very well-coached team,” said Joseph following the win despite a season-low offensive output. “It’s been a tough road but I’m really proud of our team.”
Being able to win when not at their best is something to be proud of and shows progress is being made.
“When I was a freshman and sophomore, we weren’t able to do that,” said Tilford. “Seeing now that we can actually pull off a win when we play bad is extremely good for us, especially having such a young team.”
The Jackets beat the Blue Raiders for the third time in less than a year, despite senior forward Zaire O’Neil going scoreless for only the fourth time in her career, as the Blue Raiders dared Tech to find a way to win without O’Neil. The Jackets found a way.
“They were putting a bunch of people in the paint. Zaire wasn’t able to get the points that she normally gets, she wasn’t able to get the touches she normally gets,” Joseph said. “Defensively they were kind of picking on her and kind of going at her. We had to go to a four-guard lineup to get them to spread the floor a little bit more so we could get some penetration to get some offensive rebounding.”
The depth on this year’s team has given Joseph the option of going with four guards and doing so effectively. The play of 2016-17 ACC Freshman of the Year Francesca Pan has been a major reason for that.
“Francesca Pan refused to lose and came out and made some big plays [against MTSU],” said Joseph.
Pan scored 24 points in 24 minutes, shooting 8-for-13 and 7-for-10 from the line vs. MTSU. Last year in two games against the Blue Raiders (regular season at Murfreesboro, then at McCamish in the WNIT), Pan managed 26 points in 52 minutes, shooting 8-for-20, 6-for-8 from the line. Pan leads the team with 13.8 points per game and minutes played, 27.2. That’s nearly three points and four minutes more than any other Jacket.
Tech’s win Sunday was its first win in a game decided by five-or-fewer points. Last season the Jackets were 4-6 and that doesn’t include their double-overtime WNIT Championship Game loss to Michigan.
Tilford put the final nail in MTSU’s coffin, nailing the second of two free throws, with nine seconds remaining to push the lead to 47-43, making it a two-possession game. It’s a step for the team putting one of its biggest weaknesses behind them and a big step for Tilford.
“That free throw that Imani Tilford made, she wouldn’t have made that a year ago,” said Joseph. “So I thought that showed some toughness on her part, especially after the long, extended substitution, when it seemed like they were freezing our free throw shooter with a substitution. I thought that showed a lot of growth and maturity in her to step up and make that free throw.”
Tilford who has shown both in transitioning to coming off the bench -- she’s is in her customary spot leading the team in steals, including a team-best four vs. MTSU, her eighth multi-steal game in nine -- feels the team is showing similar growth and maturity.
“We try to better ourselves every day,” she said. “We try to work on the things that we didn’t do well in the game before and try to work on them in practice to make it better and execute it in the next game.”
That next game is Sunday against UT-Arlington. The Lady Mavericks lead the nation in three-point defense and feature a pair of seniors, center Rebekah VanDijk, a 6-5 force, who has 39 career double-doubles and ranks seventh in school history in scoring, and guard Cierra Johnson, last year’s Sun Belt Defensive Player of the Year and one of five players in UTA history with 200 career assists and 200 career steals. The Jackets beat the Lady Mavericks, 63-56, in the only previous meeting between the schools, back in 2008, in the championship game of the Bahamas Sunsplash Shootout, led by tournament MVP Jacqua Williams and Alex Montgomery.
In what is becoming a season of firsts, the Jackets hope to record their first home win against UTA. It’ll be the team’s first game since finals began and its last before a week off to recharge. Then comes Georgia, at Stegeman Coliseum. But there’ll be no looking past the Lady Mavs.
“We’ll treat it like any game,” said Tilford. “Like Coach says, you always have to respect people that you play. It’s preparation for our long-term goals.”