By Matt Winkeljohn
The Good Word
Watching MaChelle Joseph bounce along the sideline Sunday afternoon made it obvious ‘tis a season to be merry for Georgia Tech women’s basketball, and not just because the head coach wore bright gold shoes and a championship sweater.
And not because Christmas is coming.
Really, this is more about the Yellow Jackets, who moved to 9-1 for the first time with an 80-52 dismantling of the University of Texas Arlington (UTA officials request no hyphen) in McCamish Pavilion, and where they may wind up going.
Tech is so deep and so versatile that the anticipation of Sunday’s game at Georgia – where Tech will chase consecutive wins over the Bulldogs for the first time in history – is akin to waiting to open gifts.
Inside, outside, on offense or defense, fast pace or slow slog, the Jackets are as well-staffed as in years to handle whatever comes and Joseph knows it.
That first quarter was the best example.
Tech hit 12 consecutive shots, including the first of five 3-pointers by Francesca Pan on her way to scoring 21 points, and stifling pressure defense frazzled the Lady Mavericks (5-4) into 11 turnovers off of which the Jackets scored 14 points – just in that period.
The Jackets won’t take a 27-6 lead in every game. But they’re better able to score this season than in years, averaging 71.1 points per game so far.
“We took a couple days off to get ready for finals and then really worked on shooting, building our confidence because we know we’ve got good shooters. We’ve just got to knock down open shots,” Joseph said after Tech made 33-of-61 shots (54.1 percent) to push their season shooting percentage to 43.5 percent.
“We [went on shooting streaks] a couple times last year in the WNIT. It’s tough to do. We don’t want to have to count on that. What we want is to get more offensive balance, having more players that can make 15- to 17-foot jump shots. Instead of dribble, dribble, dribble, they were facing up and making jump shots.”
Yes, the Jackets did.
Tech scored a whopping 38 points in the paint against UTA, a mere nine from the free throw line (9-of-17), and 33 on jump shots from outside the lane.
Pan supplied 15 of those on five hits from beyond the arc.
The sophomore guard was Tech’s only ultra-long distance striker Sunday, but 10 Jackets scored in a wide variety of ways.
Two new starters, freshmen Kierra Fletcher and Lorela Cubaj played emergent games.
Cubaj flicked an 18-foot jumper for an 8-2 lead, and early in the second quarter took a pass deep on the left baseline, quick dribbled and spun under the goal before scoring off glass on the right side. The young Italian post player finished with a career-high nine points.
Fletcher did little of note in the first quarter. Overall, though, she grabbed a game- and career-high 11 rebounds, 10 coming on the defensive end.
The 5-9 scrapper from Warren, Mich., displayed an uncanny knack for hanging out deep on the defensive baseline, usually on the weak side, and then snatching UTA’s missed shots and taking off in the other direction with the ball.
Fletcher is not the typical point guard who spends most of her defensive time around the top of the key so that if the Jackets grab a defensive rebound she’ll be positioned to take a pass and lead the offense quickly the other direction.
“Early in the season, we realized what a great defensive rebounder she was and instead of her being our safety, we put another player back and let her go to the boards,” the coach said. “She can get a rebound and go rim to rim and be able to finish.”
Fletcher added seven points, and wasn’t alone in spreading the ball around. Pan had three assists, and junior reserve guard Kaylan Pugh banked a game-high five dimes in addition to scoring 11 points while almost entirely in attack mode.
Her signature play came when the 5-9 junior transfer from Ohio State dug the ball out of a Maverick’s hands in the lane and dribbled 80-plus feet like a blur to score for a 74-47 lead with 2:40 left in the game.
That was one example to explain the Jackets’ 24-0 edge in fast break points.
“When she can get open in transition, she can make things happen,” Joseph said. “Her stat line, with five assists, three steals as well as six rebounds . . . they threw every defense at us: triangle-and-two, box-and-one, press, zone, man . . . Kaylan Pugh, when she gets going she changes the way we play.”
Pairing the Jackets’ ability to play with pace with a growing inside game, Tech looks like a team that can spread cheer against the Bulldogs (7-1).
With only a loss to No. 6 Baylor (8-1), the Jackets are lining up before full-on ACC action that will begin in a hurry Dec. 28 against No. 3 Louisville (11-0) before Tech plays Clemson (8-2), Syracuse (10-0), No. 2 Notre Dame (9-1) and N.C. State (8-2).
Youngsters figure to help lead the way, and Cubaj may add more to the inside forces of Zaire O’Neil and Elo Edeferioka.
“Lorela is a high-level player. She really just hasn’t gotten comfortable yet in this system, this game,” Joseph said. “I think by January, February you’re going to see a really good post player . . . She just hasn’t found her nitch yet.
“This game’s a lot more physical. The lane is not as wide as what she’s used to in the international game. With her body and size, she’s used to having more space to operate inside . . . As she gets better and Kierra Fletcher gets better our team is going to get better.”