Reality, South Carolina catch up to Georgia Tech

South Carolina guard Destanni Henderson (3) passes the ball around Georgia Tech forward Lorela Cubaj (13) during the Sweet Sixteen round of the women's NCAA Tournament Sunday, March 28, 2021, at the Alamodome in San Antonio. (Eric Gay/AP)
South Carolina guard Destanni Henderson (3) passes the ball around Georgia Tech forward Lorela Cubaj (13) during the Sweet Sixteen round of the women's NCAA Tournament Sunday, March 28, 2021, at the Alamodome in San Antonio. (Eric Gay/AP)

Credit: Eric Gay

Credit: Eric Gay

The will to win — a strong finalist for phrase of the year for Georgia Tech basketball coach Nell Fortner — certainly was there to the end. There is no advanced analytic to back up such a point, you’ll just have to take my word for it.

Just know that many times over the course of Sunday’s Sweet 16 women’s NCAA Tournament game between Tech and South Carolina, the Gamecocks threatened to run away and hide. One facet or another of that roster that includes a half-dozen McDonald’s All-Americans (good heavens, they have four more committed for next year) would kick in. And South Carolina would build its lead to double digits. Time to sigh deeply and calmly accept the inevitable, Yellow Jackets.

But, like an unpaid bill, Georgia Tech would just never quite go away. This team didn’t mount Georgia Tech’s only second-ever excursion to the Sweet 16 by favoring surrender over stubbornness.

“Our will to win today was excellent today, as it always is,” Fortner said during the postgame forensics Sunday.

Just go ahead and trademark the expression for next season’s promotional campaign. This team earned it, just by the one successful comeback from a 17-point halftime deficit in this tournament.

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.

Georgia Tech head coach Nell Fortner gives direction to her team during the Sweet Sixteen round of the women's NCAA Tournament against South Carolina Sunday, March 28, 2021, at the Alamodome in San Antonio. (Eric Gay/AP)
Georgia Tech head coach Nell Fortner gives direction to her team during the Sweet Sixteen round of the women's NCAA Tournament against South Carolina Sunday, March 28, 2021, at the Alamodome in San Antonio. (Eric Gay/AP)

Credit: Eric Gay

Credit: Eric Gay

“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.”

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