Women’s hoops battles in conference tourney

Photo by Jon Long

A basketball conference tournament, whether men’s or women’s, is an event conducted at breakneck pace. Each day brings with it another game. The most fortunate squads get either one- or two-round byes as recognition of their regular-season success. The rest? They claw forward each game, attempting to preserve their health while dispatching progressively more difficult opponents.

Tech’s women’s team began that journey with a hot start in Greensboro, N.C. on Wednesday afternoon, as they took on the Clemson Tigers. The 61-52 win for Tech was impressive but not unpredictable; the Jackets were 2-0 in regular-season matchups against the Tigers, who finished the season in the conference cellar. In one game, the Jackets’ second game of the season, MaChelle Joseph’s squad doubled up Clemson to the tune of 66-33.

The Jackets’ next contest (which happens after press time) is the Thursday game against seventh-seeded Virginia. The game will happen just over a month after the two teams’ only game this season, one which the Cavaliers won, 62-56. Tech limited Virginia to a paltry six points in the second quarter of that game and carried a small lead headed into the fourth quarter, but a 22-14 Cavalier advantage in the final frame gave the road team a win.

That game saw significant contributions from both Francesca Pan and Zaire O’Neil. Last year, Pan made waves by being named the conference freshman of the year. This time, it was time for O’Neil to earn an accolade of her own: ACC Sixth Person of the Year, awarded to the most valuable bench competitor in the conference each season.

O’Neil started 26 games last season and saw action in all 37. With highly-touted freshman Lorela Cubaj joining the lineup, the Newark, N.J. native found herself shunted onto the bench. For many seniors, a demotion in their final year of eligibility would have been too demoralizing to bear. O’Neil, however, took it in stride, actually playing more minutes than Cubaj over the course of the year and finishing second on the team in regular season scoring
behind Pan.

In the heat of a conference tournament, veteran presence is necessary. O’Neil will provide that, but for an example of a player with plenty of high-pressure experience early in her career, look no further than freshman guard Kierra Fletcher. Fletcher was named to the ACC All-Freshman Team, along with seven others across the campus. Fletcher was a leader on a state championship Warren Cousino program and now has the chance to play in elimination games at the highest level of women’s college basketball.

Ranked No. 63 by RPI and stuck at No. 10 in the conference standings, the Jackets will not likely be invited to the NCAA Tournament. But selection for the Women’s National Invitation Tournament (WNIT), the sport’s consolation prize, is only two weeks away. A strong performance in the conference tournament will solidify the argument the Jackets will make for a high seed. Last year, Tech reached the finals of the tournament, losing 89-79 to Michigan in a gut-wrenching triple-overtime contest, a tougher fight than the men put up against Texas Christian to bring the men’s bracket to a conclusion.

By the time this paper arrives at stands on Friday, the Jackets’ conference season may be over, or the team could emerge from its contest against the Cavaliers unscathed with a Friday evening date set against an excellent Notre Dame squad, a mainstay in the upper echelons of the college basketball world. From there, anything is possible.

Survive and advance. It is the motto of every team in an elimination tournament. Focus on dispatching the opponent immediately ahead, and the rest will take care of itself. Tech has survived round one. Now they advance.