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Yellow Jacket Year in Review: Women’s Basketball

What started so bright...yet faded so fast.

Winning is fun.
Georgia Tech Athletics/Danny Karnik

METZ, FRANCE - After a week hiatus for my lengthy reflection on the past year and the general state of Tech athletics, as well as a little expansion speculation, today marks a return to the regularly scheduled program with a look at women’s basketball. This team started the season with some decent expectations, after taking Michigan to triple overtime in the 2017 Women’s NIT championship, yet fading as the clock ran down, only to fall to Alabama in just Sweet Sixteen of that same tournament this year. So what happened?

Tech ended 2016 on a good note, though not quite as great as it could have been. After a solid, but not astounding regular season, the Yellow Jackets were just a hair’s breadth away from winning a title. A Women’s National Invitational Tournament title, sure, but banners are fun and something to talk about. Instead, they had to settle for second. No matter, they returned most of their talent, and added a couple key parts, like point guard Kierra Fletcher and center Lorela Cubaj.

There were tremendous expectations heading into the season thanks to a nice crop of returning seniors including Elo Edeferioka, Imani Tilford, Zaire O’Neill, and Antonia Peresson, complemented by the experienced graduate transfer Breanna Brown. Not only that, but the Jackets also had the reigning Atlantic Coast Conference Freshman of the Year, the acclaimed Francesca Pan. Through non-conference play, the Yellow Jackets were 10-2, with their only two losses coming to other Power Five schools, Baylor, traditionally a strong team, and the School out East. The Baylor game in the Bahamas wasn’t particularly close, but the Jackets only narrowly lost to the Athenians on the road in their first game back from the finals break. The other major conference school Tech faced was Purdue in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge, a 68-55 win at McCamish Pavilion.

The Jackets started ACC play with a narrow three point loss to the no. 3 Louisville Cardinals at home. Though a home game against Clemson offered a brief respite to the brutal gauntlet of the beginning of the conference schedule, the Jackets would go just 1-6 for the month of January after then, opening conference play with a 2-7 record. Suffice it to say, the conference slate is never easy in this league, and they played some tough teams on the road, but a 77-54 demolition at home against Notre Dame, the eventual national champion, was emblematic of the month for Tech.

February didn’t start much better for the team, falling on the road to Duke, but the Jackets were able to salvage the month for the most part, ending up 5-3 on the month and a more respectable 6-10 in conference play. In the conference tournament, Tech knocked off Clemson for the third time of the season, before barely losing to Virginia, 60-58. With an 18-13 record, the WNIT again came calling for the Jackets, who steamrolled Bethune-Cookman and the University of Alabama-Birmingham before falling to the Crimson Tide of Tuscaloosa by another razor-thin margin, 61-59. The Jackets finished the season a solid 20-14.

In the course of the season, the Jackets finished the year a different-looking team than they started. Going into the season, a lot of emphasis was on the seniors - O’Neill and Edeferioka looked tremendous in the run to the 2016 WNIT championship, after all - but they finished the year relying heavily on Cubaj, Pan, and Fletcher. Missing Kaylan Pugh in the WNIT thanks to injury was surely counterproductive, but Edeferioka herself, after being suspended a game in February, was dismissed from the team following the conference tournament. Losing a key cog of the previous year’s postseason success so late in the season did not exactly set the Jackets up for another repeat. That said, they still had a lot of talent, and the shift towards an emphasis on the younger players is healthy considering all of last year’s seniors that were buoying expectations are, of course, departed.

After heading into the Syracuse game 12-3 and looking like a well oiled machine, the loss at the Carrier Dome seemingly put the Jackets into a tailspin. After being so effective against lesser competition in the non-conference season, the Jackets were so often sporadic at best in getting the production they needed to win games. This is evidenced by close losses to several NCAA tournament-bound teams, as the Jackets just came up short sometimes. Given how many tight games the Jackets lost, a boost to their free throw shooting would have won them several additional games last year, as they were exceedingly good at drawing opportunities to get to the charity stripe, but ineffective to say the least from the line, finishing with the worst free throw percentage in the conference.

To be sure, the freshmen did struggle mightily at times, but their steady progress during conference play gives good reason to look forward to this coming year. Of course, the proven Pan will once again anchor the team, but Fletcher made big strides filling the role of a true ACC point guard as the season progressed. The same improvement can be said for Cubaj on the post. As the starting lineup metamorphosed over the course of February, the young players nearly knocked off no. 9 Florida State to close out the regular season, before eventually losing two heartbreakers in the postseason. These are healthy signs for the Jackets, who will also get Pugh back from injury to an already solid core, and unleash two redshirts in Anne Diouf and Daijah Jefferson. This doesn’t even mention the ridiculous job MaChelle Joseph and her staff did on the recruiting trail this year.

Georgia Tech inked the number seven recruiting class in the nation, with a rather large six signees. Both Elizabeth Dixon and Elizabeth Balogun enter with plenty of experience playing at high levels - both are All-Americans. One of the best international prospects in the sport, Lotta-Maj Lahtinen, is already on campus putting in work. These three are complemented by guard Jasmine Carson and forward D’Asia Gregg, as well as Kondalia Montgomery, sister of former Tech star Alex Montgomery, who was drafted tenth overall by the New York Liberty and in her eighth season in the league, now with the Chicago Sky. Those are some good genes.

It’s good to have Joseph back at the helm for another year. She’s developed some fine players and has won at least twenty games in ten of her fifteen seasons on the Flats, all within the last twelve years. She has also made the postseason in eleven of those twelve years. Though it has been four straight WNIT berths for the Jackets, she has gotten them to the NCAA tournament seven times in her tenure on the Flats and brings assistant coach Mark Simons back to Tech, who has a proven record of success, including two years at Tech in which they made the NCAA tournament both seasons. He specializes in scheduling and academics. A slight step-up in non-conference scheduling might help to make the switch to the ACC season a little less jarring for Tech, and, this being Tech, emphasis on academics is always a plus. The schedule for the upcoming season has not been released yet, but other than the annual game against the School in Athens shifting to the Flats, the matchups for the tournament in Cancun are downright absurd. Several major conference teams there and Tech draws Idaho State and George Washington. Granted, the latter was a tournament team last year, but it could have given Tech a marquee matchup early in the year. But, anyways, the point is Simon is a proven entity and he has great history of working with post players, which was one of Tech’s biggest struggles last year. This is a great hire for the program. Joseph rounded out her staff with a video specialist, a graduate assistant, and another assistant coach, Sasha Palmer. Palmer comes to Tech with a much shorter resume, but fifteen years of experience is solid nonetheless, especially her last job coaching at Wisconsin. She was the Badgers’ recruiting coordinator, who also garnered a well-regarded class in 2018. Another good hire by Joseph.

Though it is disappointing to undershoot the lofty expectations of the previous year, it doesn’t make sense to dwell on the Jackets slightly disappointing 2017-18 year. Despite the struggles in January, the midseason adjustments paid off. The team didn’t quite, and made a decently deep run in the WNIT, to boot. The Jackets salvaged a year that very easily could have spiraled out of their control and won twenty games in the end. Seasons like that build character, which is important even if there isn’t a great statistical way to measure it. They come into this season bolstered by fresh talent to supplement their players who had breakouts this past year. Again, Francesca Pan is back to lead the team. This team isn’t going to miss a beat. Between positive coaching hires and solid recruits, they’re doing the right things off the court to make themselves better. This is a good team, and should be a tournament team at the end of the season. It’s always nice to win twenty games. It’s nice to win games, period. This is an exciting Tech team that should do just that.

Coming up next week: Softball

Stay tuned for more investigation into the state of non-revenue sports, mild soapbox editorializing, and, hopefully, some productive discourse to get us through the summer. As always, fell free to leave any questions, comments, and feedback below.