Trevor Davidson is a senior Georgia Tech undergraduate student studying Mechanical Engineering. A former hockey operations intern with the Columbus Blue Jackets NHL team, Trevor also loves to hike, ski, and travel. He has joined FTRS as a women’s basketball and women’s volleyball writer.
In the history of Georgia Tech basketball, it’s not hard to identify individual games which become synonymous with individual players for a spectacular performance. This is particularly memorable for team upperclassmen: it becomes their legacy game. Marcus Georges-Hunt refusing to lose against Notre Dame is maybe the best recent example, but McCamish Pavillion is not arbitrarily nicknamed the Thrillerdome.
The 2020 GT Women’s Basketball team has yet to write a postseason story. We have no idea whether this story ends in the NCAA tournament, the NIT, or with anything beyond a trip to Greensboro in March.
But what we do know is that this season will be defined by Francesca Pan’s legacy game. That game happened Sunday afternoon at Reynolds Coliseum in Raleigh, North Carolina, where the Yellow Jackets went on the road to beat the now-#10, then-#4, NC State Wolfpack, 65-61.
I am not the first to point out that this is the first win for the Tech Women’s Basketball team over a AP top-10 team on the road in program history. This adds to a road win over then-#11 Florida State, which at the time represented the biggest road win in program history. It did not even take two months for that record to break.
I am not the first to highlight that this win has single-handedly taken Tech’s chances of a big dance ticket from dwindling rapidly to suddenly realistic. Only one other AP top-10 team has lost a home game to an unranked opponent (West Virginia over Mississippi State), and NC State reached heights that the Starkville squad has not this season.
I am not the first to point out that Pan’s 30 points and 24 attempts represent a career high, topping previous marks by 4 points and 1 attempt. No other Tech player took more than 8 attempts on Sunday. No NC State player took more than 14.
What I aim to do here is answer three questions: how did Francesca pull this game off, how did Tech manufacture this win, and can they keep it up going into the most crucial week of the season?
Pan’s typical game usually involves keeping the ball in her hands. She is not ball dominant: Fletcher and Lahtinen keep the ball more. But combined with her use as a spot-up shooter, Pan takes a significant number of midrange shots off the dribble. This season, her distance shooting has abandoned her: she was shooting 21.9% from downtown this season and worse in ACC play.
Teams have recognized this. For example, in the UNC game, Taylor Koenen, the Tar Heels’ best defender, spent the majority of the game guarding Carson at the three point line. It’s not hard to find examples from Sunday’s game either: NC State was giving significant space to Pan at the arc, daring Tech guards to pass her the ball and for her to take shots with little defensive pressure.
This game, it burned them. Pan shot 4 for 9 from 3-point range. In particular, she shot 3 for 5 on catch and shoot threes, taking a pass from the Tech ball handler and immediately converting. In fact, she became so hot that the NC State defense increasingly respected her. In the first quarter, the nearest Pan defender was just outside the key.
Through the second quarter, they were much more aggressively defending her at the perimeter.
The difference in these two situations is enormous. Pan has plenty of room to receive a pass and shoot in the first image, which after some movement, she eventually does. In the second photo, Jasmine Carson has just looked at Francesca Pan, seen the defender on top of the three point line, and decline the pass to Pan. This is what offensive gravity looks like: a hot shooter pulling defenders away from the lane.
The third quarter was her Mona Lisa. She shot 5 for 5 from the midrange and 6 for 6 from the field. The NC State defense tried, but they were incapable of stopping the momentum. Rising up at the elbow, just inside the free throw line, and drawing fouls under the basket, she led the Jackets from five points down to lead by six going into the final frame. When the fourth quarter rolled around, the Wolfpack were forced to double team her (the best example at 7:30 left in the fourth). As Coach Fortner said on Packer and Durham on Monday, “She absolutely was in a zone….[Pan] did not take no for an answer. I don’t care if she was contested”.
Defensively, it was a mixed bag. She was excellent as a help defender, never fouling and drawing two charges. She had sequences, like at 4:08 in the first quarter, where she quickly recognized the play and shut down the NC State opportunity twice. She also had sequences, particularly in tandem with Hermosa during screens, where communication broke down and she was beaten for a bucket, like what happened with about 1:50 remaining in the third quarter. But regardless of her defensive performance, it was her offensive display that will have us remembering this game first when we remember #33’s collegiate career.
The rest of the team did not just stand around, either. They contributed another two midrange buckets in the third quarter to put the team at 7 for 7 from the middle ground on the night. Kierra Fletcher was particularly efficient, shooting 4 for 6 from the field. Lotta-Maj Lahtinen had one of her best passing games of her career, picking up five assists and fearlessly shooting the open threes. Finally, despite struggling to coordinate the switches on screens defensively, Nerea Hermosa was spectacular beneath the basket, shooting 6 for 6, collecting six rebounds, and grabbing three blocks in just 27 minutes. When usual scorers Carson and Cubaj had subpar shooting performances at a combined 1 for 9, the rest of the team stepped up.
Despite Pan’s shooting night, they also weren’t reliant on shooting percentage to carry the day either. They took more field goals than NC State (55-49) and committed fewer turnovers (12-14). They did shoot fewer free throws (13-18), but in this circumstance, winning two of four key categories (the teams drew with 6 steals each) is a great performance.
With the win, the NCAA tournament becomes a far more realistic goal. Is it possible to get there? The AJC’s Ken Sugiura points out that despite the win, the Jackets have some key hurdles. Ultimately, it will come down to Tech’s ability to execute this weekend with #5 Louisville and #17 Florida State coming to town for the most important regular season week in many years for the program.
In the past five games, Tech has a mixed bag among key indicators. They have won the shot count in three of them (with one draw), the free throw battle twice, and the turnover contest thrice (again, one tie). The team may not have returned to early ACC form, when they shot more than their opposition in all but one of their first eight games, but the team is clearly trending in the right direction.