The essential raw ability to win, however, wasn’t there for Tech Sunday. The better, more complete team, a No. 1 seed for a number of very good reasons, won Sunday. Final score: Reality 76, Will 65.
Proven Sunday was that it is quite difficult to beat a team that doesn’t miss. South Carolina came out in the third quarter and hit 10 of its first 11 shots and built its most oppressive lead of the game, 17 points.
Could have been the start of a rout. At this point, even the more ardent Tech supporters, the ones attracted by this surprising run to the Sweet 16, may have been watching with one eye closed. Like that point in the horror movie where the goofy teens hide in the cemetery.
Instead, there was Tech within six points (69-63) with a bit more than four minutes to play. It would demand your attention to the end, until one last 7-2 South Carolina burst.
Still, that ending was a time for explanation, not celebration
“We just didn’t have enough weapons. We couldn’t make enough stops at the end,” Fortner said.
“Came down to defensive stops. Games prior to this we were able to lock down and get those defensive stops,” senior guard Kierra Fletcher said. “We really pride ourselves on our defense. This game it got away from us a little bit.”
The Gamecocks got very little from their All-American frontcourt star, Aliyah Boston — no points in the first half, nine for the game and a season-low five rebounds. Still, so loaded is South Carolina that it still accumulated 44 points in the paint.
Not known as a 3-point shooting team — averaging three made-3s a game during the season — South Carolina knocked down eight Sunday, just to prove it could.
Tech’s leadership triumvirate of Lotta-Maj Lahtinen (20), Fletcher (16) and Lorela Cubaj (15) had 51 of the team’s 65 points. “We got to get a few more pieces on this team to really make a strong run,” Fortner said of the challenge awaiting.
A special team — “This is the closest team I’ve ever been on through and through, great players, great people, great teammates,” Fletcher said — yielded to a better one. That is often the way of things.
In her second season at Tech, taking over after the program’s tumultuous parting with MaChelle Joseph, Fortner preferred to see Sunday as the start of something as much as it was the end of a season.
A quite energized 62-years-old, she has spoken of the gains in recruiting and recognition to be had in a season like this — even one amid a pandemic. She called this tournament run, “a springboard for us that we’ll use to continue to build this program and play at a high level and get back to this tournament and see if we can get a little bit farther.”
It’s not like one nice run and a high-character Sweet 16 loss is enough. And that’s a good thing.
“This team has an incredibly bright future,” Fortner said. “We’ve got to put some work in during the off-season and we’ve got to get better individually so we can get into this game next year and have a different outcome.
“We know that we got to get better.”