Georgia Tech exceeding expectations in Nell Fortner’s first season

Georgia Tech head coach Nell Fortner, in her first season, coaches up her team during a time out in first half action against North Carolina in a NCAA college basketball game on Thursday, January 23, 2020, in Atlanta. The Yellow Jackets came back to tie the game 54-54 forcing overtime before falling 67-60 to the Tar Heels.   Curtis Compton ccompton@ajc.com
Caption
Georgia Tech head coach Nell Fortner, in her first season, coaches up her team during a time out in first half action against North Carolina in a NCAA college basketball game on Thursday, January 23, 2020, in Atlanta. The Yellow Jackets came back to tie the game 54-54 forcing overtime before falling 67-60 to the Tar Heels. Curtis Compton ccompton@ajc.com

Credit: Curtis Compton

Credit: Curtis Compton

Nell Fortner placed both hands on her head and thought, “Thank God.”

The final buzzer had just gone off Sunday inside of Georgia Tech’s McCamish Pavilion, signaling that the unranked Yellow Jackets’ 65-62 upset of No. 17 Florida State was complete.

The win was the Jackets’ fourth over a Top 25 team this season, and pushed Tech (18-10, 9-8 ACC) firmly atop the NCAA tournament bubble.

Less than a year ago, the school fired its longtime head coach and lost two All-ACC players in transfers to Louisville. Now, ESPN's Charlie Creme projects the Jackets among his "last four in."

Tech hasn’t played in the NCAA tournament since the 2013-14 season, which also is the last season when the team had a winning record in ACC play. The team could potentially do both for the first time in six seasons in Fortner’s first season at the helm.

Fortner said the culture of playing to win starts with the staff. The head coach is as decorated as they come and has led the U.S. women’s basketball national team to a gold medal and the most wins by any coach in Team USA women’s history. Collegiately, she won regular-season conference championships in the Big Ten (at Purdue) and in the SEC (at Auburn).

Chief of staff Micki DeMoss is in the women’s basketball Hall of Fame, was an assistant under legendary Pat Summitt for 20 years and won six national titles and one in the WNBA. Tasha Butts played and coached under Summitt as well.

“All anybody’s ever done is win. That’s all we that’s all we know how to do. We win at the highest level,” Fortner said. “So every day that’s our work standard. That’s our practice standard. That’s our expectation. We don’t like to lose, we don’t lose.”

She also said that she doesn’t have to coach her players’ effort.

A week ago, senior Francesca Pan scored a career-high 30 points – 22 in the second half – to fuel Tech's upset of No. 4 N.C. State. The 6-foot-1 guard closed her career in McCamish Pavilion with a game-high 23 points, six steals and 40 minutes against Florida State. Going into Senior Day on Sunday, Pan ranked eighth in program history in scoring and fourth in 3-point field goals made.

In the Jackets’ upset of then-No. 23 Miami on Jan. 2, Lotta-Maj Lahtinen played 40 minutes and she, along with Jasmine Carson, dropped 15 points while Kierra Fletcher grabbed 10 rebounds. In the first upset of the Seminoles, at Florida State on Jan. 9, Tech forced 21 turnovers and Carson tallied 21 points.

Vicki (Siebenmorgan) Lester, who played for the women’s basketball program in the late 1970s, has enjoyed watching the hustle, teamwork and “playing with an expectation win” this season. She said this team reminds her of the group she played with from 1976-79.

“The expectations were that they weren’t going to do well this year, but they’re right in the middle of the pack for the ACC,” Lester said. “If the balls were to bounce a little bit differently, we would have had a much better record and I think one of the top four seeds for the (ACC) tournament.”

The Jackets have lost six ACC games by less than 10 points – three of those losses came in overtime. Tech ranks No. 66 in RPI. The NCAA landscape is so chaotic – Tech was one of seven unranked teams to upset ranked teams Sunday – that there’s no telling where the team will end up with one week to go in the regular season.

“We lucked out getting (Fortner) to be our head coach,” said Mac McCuen, a 15-year women’s basketball season-ticket holder and 1974 Tech grad. “She’s done a great job,and she’s got a great recruiting class coming in.”

Tech has four signees – one of them ESPN’s No. 31 player Anaya Boyd, of Hampton – for the 2020 class.

The team next travels to Clemson on March 1 for the regular-season finale before the ACC tournament begins March 4.

“You win a game like this over Florida State. It's great for your RPI as you move forward and you've got to now really take care of business,” Fortner said. “Really in a real strong, exact, locked in kind of way. And that's what we'll do.”

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