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Monday August 19th, 2019 2:04AM

Joseph still suspended as Georgia Tech clings to NCAA hopes

By The Associated Press
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ATLANTA (AP) — Georgia Tech coach MaChelle Joseph's suspension has carried over into the postseason, and the fallout adds more doubt to the team's fading NCAA Tournament hopes.

The Yellow Jackets will carry a three-game losing streak into their ACC women's tournament opener against North Carolina on Thursday. The losing streak includes two losses since Joseph was placed on leave for what the school described as "a pending personnel matter."

Kierra Fletcher and Francesca Pan, two of Georgia Tech's top four scorers, left the team at the same time Joseph was forced out.

Assistant coach Mark Simons, serving as acting head coach, told The Associated Press on Tuesday Fletcher and Pan made the decisions to leave the team.

"We've had no contact with them," Simons said when asked about Fletcher and Pan. "We're told that they're fine. It was a personal decision on their part and that's about it."

Simons would not say if he has had any communication with Joseph.

"I'm not allowed to comment on that," he said. "That was a personnel decision but I'm really not allowed to comment on anything to do with it. I apologize."

Joseph's lawyer, Lisa Banks, said Thursday that Georgia Tech "failed to provide any explanation" for the suspension. Banks did not reply to requests from the AP on Tuesday for an update on Joseph's status.

Simons and the players have been placed in a difficult dilemma. The Yellow Jackets (17-12, 7-9 Atlantic Coast Conference) need to beat North Carolina to keep alive their NCAA hopes.

The must-win situation comes at a time Simons has had to reconstruct Georgia Tech's lineup.

"It makes for an interesting game," Simons said.

Simons said he'll start three freshmen, including point guard Lotta-Maj Lahtinen, who is from Finland. Lahtinen started only four regular-season games.

"We've got great kids," Simons said. "I think they've done a great job of staying focused on what their goals are, and that's to get into the NCAA Tournament."

Simons said the game plan "got a little fractured" late in a 64-55 home loss to Florida State on Sunday to end the regular season. "But for the most part the blinders are on, moving forward," he said.

No blinders could protect the players from the disruptive effects of the sudden exits of their coach, two teammates and an additional staffer. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported Sunday that graduate assistant Antonia Peresson, a former Georgia Tech player, was fired on Friday for having private talks with players, contrary to instructions given staff members following Joseph being placed on leave.

With Joseph still coaching the team and a full roster available, Georgia Tech lost at North Carolina 91-90 on Jan. 31. It won't be easy for a short-handed team to avenge the loss.

"I really and truly believe our kids are ready for it," Simons said, noting the loss to the Tar Heels came on last-second free throws.

"I think our kids are pretty confident going into the game."

___

More AP college basketball: https://apnews.com/Collegebasketball and https://twitter.com/AP_Top25

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