COLUMBUS, Ohio – One team has never made it to the NCAA’s round of 16. The other has a recent history of March disappointments.
When Georgia Tech (24-10) faces Ohio State (23-9) on Monday night in the tournament’s second round, there’ll be plenty of incentive on both sides.
“Our only goal coming into the season wasn’t about winning championships; it was about getting to the Sweet 16,” said Yellow Jackets coach MaChelle Joseph. “I always wanted our team to be considered one of the top 20 programs in the country. We fought all year for respect. We beat four top-20 teams and we couldn’t get into the Top 25. So this is a game for us, for our program, to earn some respect, to say, ‘Hey, we’re here and hopefully we’re here to stay.”’
The problem for the fourth-seeded Buckeyes is that they have not lived up to high expectations in the NCAA tournament recently. In six of their last eight trips, they failed to get past the second round – going home early despite being seeded No. 1 once, No. 2 once, No. 4 twice and No. 6 twice.
It’s clear that getting ousted so quickly rankles veteran coach Jim Foster.
“You don’t end the season feeling very good,” he said.
But the Buckeyes have the added benefit – and perhaps, the added pressure – of playing on their own campus, although not on their regular home floor. St. John Arena is their backup court where they play a game or so each season.
Still, Foster refuses to even contemplate that his team has a huge advantage.
“Your home court is where you play every day. Your home court is where you practice,” he said.
Pausing for effect, he cracked, “We just happen to have a very large auxiliary gym.”
Georgia Tech, which received an at-large bid and a No. 5 seed after finishing tied for fourth in the Atlantic Coast Conference, is making its seventh NCAA tournament appearance but has never come close to getting past the second round.
The Yellow Jackets’ hopes hinge on their suffocating press, which they apply after the opening tip and play until the final horn.
“We haven’t really seen that,” said Ohio State 3-point specialist Brittany Johnson. “We can’t try to dribble through the press. We’ve just got to keep the ball moving, looking for an open player.”
Georgia Tech forced Bowling Green into a season-high 25 turnovers in a 69-58 first-round win Saturday. Post player Sasha Goodlett had 19 points despite heavy foul trouble, while guard Alex Montgomery, a chiseled 6-foot-1, played her typical all-around game with 14 points, 11 rebounds, two assists and three steals.
“I don’t think they really know what they have ahead of them,” Montgomery said of the Buckeyes when they face Tech’s omnipresent pressure.
If Ohio State hasn’t seen such smothering defense all season, then the Yellow Jackets must deal with a unique player in Ohio State post player Jantel Lavender. A 6-foot-4 senior who picked up a degree in sport and leisure studies Sunday, she is the only man or woman to be named a four-time Big Ten player of the year. She had 30 points and 11 rebounds in an 80-69 victory over Central Florida in the first round, running the floor in transition, popping midrange jumpers and muscling inside.
“Jantel Lavender is one of the top two, three players in the country,” Joseph said. “Have we faced somebody as good as her? No.”
Lavender said the diploma made her realize her college career was almost over.
“I don’t know if I’m really ready to go,” she said.
Georgia Tech recognizes that a partisan crowd of around 5,000 will be against it. So is the program’s history. But that’s what makes March so mad.
“We know the cards are stacked against us,” Joseph said. “It’s like I told my players today at practice: If it was easy, everybody would do it. This is hard, and so that’s what makes it special.”