ATLANTA — As soon as the NCAA women’s bracket was announced, Sasha Goodlett started getting a flood of texts from her friends.
“They were all saying, ‘Ohhh, you have to go against Brittney Griner,’” the Georgia Tech center recalled. “I was like, ‘Hey, we have two games before that. Let’s not get too caught up in ourselves.’”
Well, those two games are out of the way.
Fourth-seeded Georgia Tech has reached the regional semifinals for the first time in school history, but there wasn’t much time to celebrate.
Next up Saturday in the Des Moines Regional: top-ranked Baylor (36-0) and the nation’s most dominant player.
The Yellow jackets (26-8) are a huge underdog, like just about everyone who goes against Griner and her supporting cast. Baylor romped through the first two rounds, beating UC Santa Barbara by 41 points, then easing to a 19-point win over Florida that was punctuated by a dunk from the 6-foot-8 phenom — only the second woman to pull off a slam in the NCAA tournament.
While Griner relies on those sort of plays to intimidate her opponents, Georgia Tech talked bravely before boarding the plane to Iowa.
“We don’t have to do anything special or anything miraculous,” said Goodlett, who will be giving away 3 inches when she goes up against Griner. “They put their shoes on just like we do: one leg at a time and tie ‘em up one shoe at a time. We can’t get too caught up in the name. We’re going to focus on us and do what we do.”
Led by feisty coach MaChelle Joseph, the Yellow Jackets aren’t running scared, that’s for sure. This is a program that has risen from obscurity with six straight NCAA appearances. Now, its deepest advance yet with wins in the first two rounds.
“We’re looking forward to the matchup,” Joseph said. “It’s a great opportunity for our program. We respect everyone, but we fear no one.”
She keeps telling her players not to get worked up when Griner starts swatting away shots, as she’s bound to do.
“No doubt, Griner alters the game with her blocked shots,” Joseph said. “But it’s one those things that when you watch her block shots, 90 percent of the time she blocks it out of bounds. So you’re getting the ball back. You can’t worry about it. She’s gonna block shots. Get the ball back and go back at her. One of the things you’ve got to have is relentless effort when you’re playing against someone like her.”
When Baylor has the ball, Georgia Tech hopes to use its trademark full-court press to keep the Lady Bears scrambling. The last thing Joseph wants is her opponent setting up its half-court game, making it much easier to work the ball inside to Griner.
“We play 94 feet. We don’t play 10 feet in the paint,” Joseph said. “One of the things we try to do is stretch the game out defensively. We put pressure on you in the backcourt, so hopefully the ball won’t get to the frontcourt very often. That’s our plan. Or when it does get to the frontcourt, we want to get the wrong people shooting it. That’s always our defensive scheme. That’s not going to change.”
Goodlett has faced this sort of challenge before. As a freshman, she went against Oklahoma’s dynamic twins, Courtney and Ashley Paris, in an NCAA tournament game. The Georgia Tech center didn’t fare too badly either, though, the Sooners pulled away from a tie game at halftime to win easily, 69-50.
Now a senior, Goodlett is winding down her college career against Griner.
“It’s just a challenge,” Goodlett said. “My goal isn’t to come out and have this all-world game. My goal is to come in and be what my team needs me to be.”
Through all the brave talk, Joseph knows the odds of stopping Griner and turning this into a truly memorable season are stacked heavily against the Yellow Jackets. It will take a near-perfect game played with maximum effort — and it wouldn’t hurt for Griner and the Lady Bears to have an off night, too.
“The best coaches in the country have tried to figure out a way to slow her down,” Joseph lamented. “I don’t think anyone in three years has figured that one out. So I don’t think I can reinvent the wheel in 48 hours. But one thing you can’t put a limitation on it effort and hustle and determination.”