ATLANTA (AP) - MaChelle Joseph conducted Georgia Tech's practice wearing a shirt that celebrated another trip to the NCAA tournament. "Together We Dance," it said on the back.
Of course, making it this far is nothing new for the Yellow Jackets.
Dancing for more than a week has always been the issue.
Georgia Tech (24-8) has never made it past the second round, keeping the program from gaining more national recognition despite six straight NCAA appearances.
For Joseph, the team's ninth-year coach, getting to the tournament is no longer good enough. The Yellow Jackets need to take the next step - to win at least two tournament games and advance to the round of 16 for the first time.
"That's something we've talked about all year," Joseph said Thursday. "For this program, a Sweet 16 would be just another step forward to making us a perennial power in women's basketball. We know that to be an established program, you've got to have some success in the postseason."
The Yellow Jackets are better positioned to make such a run than ever before.
This team is on quite a roll, having won 15 of 17 games and going to the wire with fifth-ranked Maryland before losing a 68-65 thriller in the championship game at the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament.
Then Georgia Tech received a No. 4 seed, its highest ever in the tournament, and was sent to the very familiar surroundings of Chapel Hill, N.C. - where it plays each season as part of the ACC schedule - for an opening-round game against 13th-seeded Sacred Heart (25-7) on Sunday.
More important for the Yellow Jackets, the first two rounds will be played on a true neutral court.
In those previous postseason appearances, Joseph's team was usually sent to some faraway site in the Midwest, where one of the other teams had the huge advantage of playing on its home court. The players knew their chances of advancing beyond the second round were slim before they even got on the plane.
"It's a big motivation," said senior guard Metra Walthour. "This is the first time since I've been here that we've played on a neutral court, in a region that's close to us. We got what we wanted. Now, we want to go out and show we can handle it and do something this program has never done before."
Joseph feels good about the makeup of her team.
There are five seniors to provide leadership. One of those is Walthour, who has started 66 straight games at point guard. Another is 6-foot-5 Sasha Goodlett, who gives the Yellow Jackets a strong presence on the inside.
"As long as you've got a point guard and a center who've played as many minutes as they have," Joseph said, "you have a chance to be good."
Then there's sophomore guard Tyaunna Marshall, who wasn't heavily recruited out of high school. She wound up at Georgia Tech after Joseph spotted her while scouting another player. At first, the coach was impressive by Marshall's high motor on defense, figuring she would fit well in the team's trademark pressing style.
Joseph had no idea Marshall would turn out to be quite the scorer, too.
She's been in double figures in all but five games, scored more than 20 points in three straight contests at the ACC tournament and heads into the NCAAs as the team's top offensive threat (15.3 points a game).
"Everybody is playing on the same page, Marshall said. "We have one common goal, one focus. We have our eyes on the prize and we're not going to let anything distract us."
Indeed, Georgia Tech has already gone through a unique experience that might prove especially beneficial in the tournament.
With the campus arena undergoing a massive renovation, the Yellow Jackets essentially played their entire schedule on the road. Even the so-called home games were held about 25 miles away from campus at an arena in the sprawling Atlanta suburbs. Because of the city's notorious traffic, the team booked a hotel before each game, just to make sure they didn't show up late.
All that time spent on buses and in hotels helped the team bond.
When the Jackets actually went on the road, it didn't seem so imposing. They were 10-2 in away games and 4-3 at neutral sites.
"We took a negative and turned it into a positive," Joseph said. "It really helped this program learn how to win on the road. The fact that every single game was like a road game, that we stayed in a hotel for every single game ... I think that really made us more road-tested and gave us more confidence on the road. It doesn't matter where we play. We haven't played at home all year."
Now, it's time to win two games in Chapel Hill.
"For us to have success in this program, for us to continue to grow this program," Joseph said, "a Sweet 16 would really put us on the map."
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