Twenty-five years after she graduated from Purdue following one of the greatest athletic careers in school history, Purdue continues to tug at Georgia Tech basketball coach MaChelle Joseph’s heart.
She thinks of games won and relationships forged. She thinks of Mackey Arena, where she shot baskets by herself late at night, perfecting form that enabled her to become the Big Ten’s all-time leading scorer when her career ended in 1992. She shot by the light of the floor-level scoreboards, she said.
“I was best friends with the janitor,” Joseph said. “His name was John. He’d let me in every night and closed it down behind me.”
For the third time in her career at Tech, Joseph will face her alma mater, Thursday at 7 p.m. in an ACC-Big Ten Challenge matchup at McCamish Pavilion. The first was in her first NCAA Tournament as Tech coach, a second-round matchup in 2007. In 2012, Tech played Purdue at Mackey in the ACC-Big Ten Challenge. She called it an emotional moment, as it was the first time she had returned to the beloved arena since leaving Purdue as an assistant coach in 1996. Both were losses. She said this time the weight of playing Purdue feels different.
“The thing that I’m focused on right now is my team and trying to get them in a position to be successful and get better every game,” she said.
Tech is 6-1, its only loss to No. 9 Baylor in a Thanksgiving tournament in the Bahamas. The Yellow Jackets, who reached the WNIT finals a year ago, are trying to return to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2014.
The 80-57 loss to Baylor was sobering but instructive, Joseph said. The level of execution and physical toughness has risen since the team’s return from the Bahamas, she said.
“It was a great experience for us,” she said. “We’re not going to face anybody – maybe one or two teams in the ACC – that are that big. So it’s one of those things where I think we definitely got better from it.”
Purdue will be another test of Tech’s fitness – the Boilermakers have made the NCAA Tournament six of the past seven years. Their roster includes three players from the metro Atlanta area – guards Miracle Gray (Stephenson High), Andreona Keys (Roswell High) and Dominique Oden (Marist School). Gray’s sister Nadine Morgan is an assistant coach on the Purdue staff. Tech has lost four of its past five ACC-Big Ten Challenge games.
After seven games, Joseph likes what she has seen from her team, which has a 10-deep rotation, is strong in the frontcourt and plays with typical effort. The Jackets lead the ACC in turnover margin (plus 10.2) and in steals (13.2 per game). Tech has scoring balance, with seven players averaging between 12.1 to 6.3 points per game. Guard Francesca Pan, last year’s ACC freshman of the year, is Tech’s leading scorer and has made 35.3 percent of her 3-pointers.
“We’ve got to do a better job of getting her open and getting her in position to score because she’s no longer an unknown,” Joseph said.
The next opportunity to work on that and other flaws comes Thursday, against a school Joseph could scarcely know better.
“It’s always going to mean something to me,” she said.