What had been a sterling season for Tech women’s basketball could now easily cause the program to collapse in on itself. Head coach MaChelle Joseph being placed on leave by Tech athletics for unspecified reasons has had wide-ranging impacts throughout and threatens the stability of a program that had appeared to finally be in the running for the NCAA Tournament.
On February 27, in a brief press release, Tech athletics announced that Joseph had been placed on leave from the team, but declined to comment further on the matter. The move was unexpected, as there had been no indications of issues involving Tech’s women’s basketball team and the program was enjoying its best season since 2013-2014. Instead, Tech was left without its head coach for its last two games of the regular season, and Joseph’s absence appears ready to continue through the ACC tournament, which began after the Technique’s press time.
The next day, Joseph fired back through her lawyer. In a statement by Lisa J. Banks, Joseph’s lawyer, Banks asserted that Tech “has failed to provide any explanation to Coach Joseph” as to the reasons for her being placed on leave, and claimed that the move represented “retaliation… for raising concerns about gender equity issues in the [Tech] Athletic Department.” Banks is no stranger to high-profile cases; she and her firm had previously been retained by Dr. Christine Blasey Ford for legal matters pertaining to Ford’s testimony that Brett Kavanaugh, now a Supreme Court Justice, had sexually assaulted her. The Kavanaugh hearings made national news for weeks on end and Ford found herself at the center of much of the discussion.
Joseph was not the only Tech personnel noticeably absent at Tech’s road game against Miami later that day. Junior Francesca Pan and sophomore Kierra Fletcher were not with the team as the Jackets lost 69-56, and their absence continued into Tech’s final game of the regular season, a 64-55 drubbing at the hands of Florida State on Sunday. Mark Simon, the assistant coach who had been serving as Tech’s head coach during Joseph’s absence, told the Associated Press on Tuesday that Pan and Fletcher had left the team at the same time that Joseph had been placed on leave. “It was a personal decision on their part and that’s about it.” Simon refused to comment on Joseph’s absence. It is currently unknown if the two, Tech’s second and fourth best scorers this season by points per game, will be present for the ACC Tournament.
Further departures have hounded the program in the past two weeks. On Sunday, it emerged that former captain and graduate assistant Antonia Peresson had been fired by the program for failing to following guidelines by Tech’s Athletic Department regarding communicating with players in the wake of Joseph being placed on leave. “They told us that we could not have private conversations with student-athletes, and I did,” Peresson said, courtesy of AJC.com. Peresson admitted she had got in touch with one of her former teammates because she “was just worried about them because of [the Joseph situation].”
The news comes as Tech finds itself on the cusp of NCAA Tournament contention. Though the team is ninth in the ACC, six of the teams above them find themselves in the top 25 in the nation. The Jackets have notched a number of signature wins this year, including a ranked victory against Georgia and a trouncing of No. 14 Syracuse in the Thrillerdome. As the season came to a close, the women were able to get some last minute wins against Duke, Clemson and Virginia Tech to raise their conference win rate. However, this glory was short lived, as losses to ranked Miami and FSU left the Jackets with a 7-9 conference record and 17-12 record overall going into the last game of the season against UNC.
The blow of losing Pan and Fletcher has been lessened by the fact that the Jackets still have a talented and deep starting lineup. Freshman Elizabeth Balogun led the Jackets in scoring with 14.8 PPG, followed closely by Pan with 12 PPG and freshman Elizabeth Dixon with 11.0 PPG. Both Balogun and Dixon were named ACC All-Rookie honorees on Tuesday, and Balogun was crowned ACC Rookie of the Year on Wednesday, giving the Jackets their second Rookie of the Year title in the past three years. Fletcher has led the team in assists with 74 — 10 higher than any other player on the team. Sophomore Lorela Cubaj led the team defensively with an average of 7.2 rebounds per game and 30 blocks on the season. Great utility players like junior Chanin Scott and the season steal leader freshman Lotta-Maj Lahtinen round out the Jackets lineup. But the team will miss its two veteran stars: Pan and Fletcher.