Women’s basketball faces uphill battle

Photo courtesy of Danny Karnik

Yes, Tech has two NCAA-sanctioned basketball teams.

The news may come as a surprise to some, given that the Institute’s women’s hoops program largely toils in the shadows. Men’s  head coach Josh Pastner became a cult hero on campus last season when he purchased Krispy Kreme donuts and game tickets for the second round of the National Invitational Tournament against Belmont, a game the Jackets would win en route to an NIT title game appearance.

Yet women’s coach MaChelle Joseph, who is hunting for Win No. 275 at Tech and who led her team to the NIT title game last season, is a relative unknown. No T-shirts in the bookstore are adorned with her quotes. Her every decision is not breathlessly discussed on message boards.

The same is apparent during games. The men’s basketball team has sold out four straight games, including Wednesday’s contest against Syracuse. The women play in a quieter version of McCamish Pavilion, even against elite conference opponents.

Part of the disparity stems from the tradition and popularity of men’s basketball worldwide. Men and women all over the world buy Steph Curry jerseys and don Jordan Brand shoes. Rivalries at the collegiate level like the Research Triangle battle between the UNC and Duke are essential to the national cultural fabric. Another issue is a pair of misconceptions about the women’s variant of the sport: that it requires less athleticism and skill to play at a high level and it lacks the seemingly nature-defying feats that the men’s game provides.

Yes, women’s basketball is a different sport. With the exception of a generational player like Brittney Griner, slam dunks are an alien concept. Full-court presses are not reserved for specific situations. Rivalries do not garner wall-to-wall coverage on ESPN leading up to the game.

Yet this season, Tech’s women’s basketball team has demonstrated not only quality play but significant potential for upward mobility in the years to come.

The team stands at a respectable No. 73 in the Ratings Power Index, a measure that orders all teams nationally on the basis of record and schedule strength. They have done so in an excellent conference; six of the top 25 teams by RPI belong to the ACC. And they have done so with a young starting lineup; of the starting five, only forward Elo Edeferioka is a senior.

The youth infusion in the first unit can be traced to freshmen Lorela Cubaj and Kierra Fletcher and sophomores Francesca Pan and Chanin Scott. Pan, a highly touted international recruit and 2017’s ACC Freshman of the Year, shoulders the load offensively, but she has received much-needed help from standout guard Fletcher, a Michigan native. Fletcher is a five-star prospect who won a state championship with high school Warren Cousino.

Experience has trickled down into the bench unit. Senior forward Zaire O’Neil and senior guard Imani Tilford, both of whom had starting roles on last year’s team, have become leaders off the bench. O’Neil’s physicality and Tilford’s confidence at the point guard spot provide a crucial advantage over opponents with greener bench units. O’Neil, in particular, has put together strong performances down the stretch; she is the team’s leading scorer in conference play.

Tilford and O’Neil will leave voids to fill when they graduate at the end of the season. But the Jackets have two elite prospects bound for Atlanta in time for the 2018-19 campaign: forward Elizabeth Dixon and guard Elizabeth Balogun. The two Elizabeths are ranked No. 21 and No. 25 respectively on espnW’s Class of 2018 prospects list.

In conference play, though, the story for the Jackets has been “close but no cigar.” If not for an otherworldly performance by Louisville’s Asia Durr (a Georgia native) on Dec. 28, the Jackets would have knocked off a top-five Cardinals team. Instead, the 74-71 decision marked a slow start to conference play. A close six-point loss to Virginia, ranked No. 28 nationally, was another missed opportunity for a quality win.

Yet there is no reason that the Jackets should not be able to at least contend for another deep NIT run down the stretch. The starting lineup has shown more than enough athleticism and scoring ability to keep the team close with quality programs, and the bench can be a difference-maker, both in the direct impact of its play and in that it allows Joseph to play her starters fewer minutes than other teams often do, keeping them fresher down the stretch.

They likely will not get much publicity down the stretch — even their postseason success last year was quiet — but Tech’s women’s basketball team might be the most competitive one on campus. Whether it is Kaylan Pugh’s hard-nosed style that so aptly represents her Memphis background or the grace of Pan’s three-pointer, there is something to appreciate for every sort of basketball aficionado.

With only Edeferioka set to graduate amongst the starters and plenty of young talent on the way (the Jackets have three other prospects rated three-star or above other than Dixon and Balogun), the team’s stretch of conference games are a preview of the future.