If the 2023-24 season could be condensed into a single theme for both men’s and women’s basketball, it would be rebounding.
The men’s team conceded the most rebounds in the ACC last season while the women’s team was in the bottom five of rebounds per game; however, both teams are also looking to get back on track after finishing near the bottom of the conference. For the women’s squad, head coach Nell Fortner and her players are looking to return to the NCAA tournament. The men’s team, led by first year head coach Damon Stoudamire, has more nebulous ambitions as they search for their identity under Stoudamire’s new leadership. On Monday, Nov. 6, Jackets fans got their first look at Fortner’s and Stoudamire’s initial implementations of their vision for the year — and they did not disappoint the Jacket fans.
The female Jackets got the season started with an 11 a.m. morning matchup with the Coastal Carolina Chanticleers at home in McCamish. On the Jacket’s first offensive sequence of the game, sophomore guard Kara Dunn cut into the paint and scored on an easy layup. They scored on all of their first three offensive possessions, primarily through finding the open shooter and converting from the three-point arc. The Jackets held up well on the defensive end — they raced out to an 8-0 lead due to Coastal Carolina settling for bad shots after failing to find a defensive hole. Sophomore guard Inés Noguero had a particularly nice close-out on an open three that sent the ball into the rafters. The Jackets extended their lead to 17-5 before the Chanticleers started to come back.
They made it 20-15 before the Jackets started to pull away yet again and by the end of the second quarter, it was 42-24. Sophomore guards Tonie Morgan and Kayla Blackshear both picked up from their impressive 2022 showings, hitting double-digit points on over 40% shooting by the end of the first half. Furthermore, the ball movement on display was especially notable. The Jackets’ offense did an excellent job of making the extra pass to the open shooter, shooting at an efficient 50% clip in the first half.
They got even better in the second half. The Jackets’ shot almost 55% from the field and out-scored Coastal in the half, 41-29. A significant portion of that scoring came from the shooting of freshman guard Rusne Augustinaite, who proved to be a lethal threat from three-point range. Early in the third quarter, she had a really nice off-ball possession where she cleared enough space for Morgan to drive into the paint, waited until the defense closed in on Morgan and then moved to the corner before Morgan found her on the assist for a wide-open corner three. Even though she is a freshman, Augustinaite hit four threes in her first appearance as a Jacket and played 32 minutes, the second highest on the team. Her fit perfectly complemented Blackshear and Morgan — Blackshear finished with a game-high 24 points on 75% shooting while Morgan dropped 20 points, seven rebounds and seven assists. The poor shooting numbers from 2022 — the Jackets were last in the ACC in field-goal percentage — looked like a distant memory as the Jackets cruised to a dominant 83-53 win over Coastal.
In their matchup against the local Georgia Southern Eagles, the men’s team looked more uneven. They started the game shooting a paltry 10% from the field and settled for poor looks. Junior guard Miles Kelly hit a midrange floater for the Jackets’ first bucket of the game, but the Eagles held most of the advantage in the first half. The Jackets’ defensive rotations looked sluggish initially, and the point of attack defense did not really hold up. They overcommitted on several Georgia Southern attempts from three-point range, allowing the Eagles to stay patient and wait for a better shot. Throughout the early half, they consistently lagged one or two points behind Georgia Southern but stayed in it due to some timely threes from Kelly, junior guard Kowacie Reeves and senior guard Kyle Sturdivant. Senior forward Tyzhaun Claude, an addition from the transfer portal, also made his presence felt in the first half. He defended the paint well and had a particularly nice sequence towards the end of the half where he used his footwork to essentially step around the Eagles defender and spin inside for the easy lay-up. He also had a powerful dunk towards the end of the half that gave the Jackets a 32-29 lead. The Jackets went into the half holding a narrow lead in spite of some defensive breakdowns and inefficient offensive performance.
Whatever was said at halftime clearly worked — the Jackets bounced back to convert around 57% of their shots from the field and a staggering 64% from three-point range to bury the Eagles. They took the lead early in the half, 40-38, and never looked back. Even though the Eagles actually came back midway through the second half to trail, 52-50, the offensive talent in the Jackets rotation showed up in the second half.
As it has for much of his Georgia Tech tenure, Kelly’s touch from three-point range remains his most dangerous skill and he put it on full display in the second half. He converted on four of his six long-range attempts and frustrated the Eagles perimeter defense to no end. Furthermore, he showed off his finishing ability on a particularly tough up-and-under and continuously put pressure on the rim. Reeves, the exciting transfer portal guard from Florida, dropped 15 points largely on the back of his timely three-point shots in the second half. Junior guard Deebo Coleman also got in on the second-half scoring surge — he threw down a monstrous dunk with seven minutes left in the game while also consistently relocating and hitting the open shot. 13 of his 17 points came in the second half, and his presence as an offensive spark plug off the bench will be critical for the Jackets’ seasonal successes.
Sturdivant continued to make the right passes as a surgical playmaker off the bench, leading the team with six assists and directing the offense through efficient sets. In short, this is a Jackets team that can shoot anybody out of the gym and they made it abundantly clear against the Eagles in their 84-62 win. That comes with a price — the offense currently lacks a second gear to win games where shots from beyond the arc are not falling. However, they seem to have the shotmaking talent throughout the rotation to offset the shooting struggles of any individual slump.
Although neither debut was flawless, both programs should be excited by what they put on film. They recovered from their rough spots, showed repeatable strengths and took care of their business in front of a home crowd. There is not much more that can be requested from a season opener.
The women’s team takes on the Furman Paladins in McCamish Pavilion on Saturday, Nov. 11, at 2 p.m. while the men’s team hosts the Howard Bison in McCamish Pavilion as well on Thursday, Nov. 9, at 7:30 p.m. hoping to go 2-0.