Georgia Tech holds off Georgia for road win in Athens

Georgia center Jenna Staiti (14) shoots the ball defended by Georgia Tech center Nerea Hermosa (20) and forward Digna Strautmane (45) during the first half of an NCAA basketball game on Sunday, Dec. 5, 2021 in Athens, Ga. (AP Photo/Gary McCullough)
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Georgia center Jenna Staiti (14) shoots the ball defended by Georgia Tech center Nerea Hermosa (20) and forward Digna Strautmane (45) during the first half of an NCAA basketball game on Sunday, Dec. 5, 2021 in Athens, Ga. (AP Photo/Gary McCullough)

Credit: AP

ATHENS — Three seconds remained on the clock when Nerea Hermosa missed a pair of free throws and Georgia had the final gasp on its home court Sunday afternoon. Georgia Tech sat in its timeout huddle, and the last-second heartbreak suffered at Purdue a few days earlier had to cross its mind.

Tech held a two-possession lead until Sarah Ashlee Barker made a clutch 3-pointer with four seconds to play to give the Lady Bulldogs a glimmer of hope, though trailing by a point. On Wednesday, Tech’s Sarah Bates and Eylia Love combined to miss four consecutive free throws that led to a buzzer-beating bank shot by Purdue’s Jeanae Terry that gave Tech the shock of a one-point defeat.

Georgia tried to force Tech into the same situation. Coach Joni Taylor called a timeout after Hermosa’s second miss and drew up a play with an option. Mikayla Coombs could pass it to Malury Bates, who had four baskets throughout Sunday’s contest, in the paint or find Que Morrison on a screen. It went to Morrison, who would drive toward the basket. Her shot and the final buzzer went off simultaneously and the shot fell short.

Tech (6-2) flipped its fate, and walked out of Stegeman Coliseum after knocking off No. 20 Georgia (7-1) 55-54.

“Today, we finished it off,” Yellow Jackets coach Nell Fortner said, who has beaten Georgia in each of her trips to Athens. “You have to stay the course, and I’m super proud of them for that.”

The two teams feature a lot of similarities, and Taylor knew it would “be a grind” throughout regulation. It lived up to that billing in every way possible. An ugly game with plenty of defense, a series of swings and plenty of veteran players ended up in a prevailing finish by the Jackets.

Morrison led Georgia with 15 points, and Tech featured three double-digit scorers — Love and Hermosa with 14 points apiece and Lorela Cubaj adding 11.

“It hurts because it’s a loss and it’s Tech,” Morrison said. “We need to feel this loss to get stronger as a team.”

At the opening tip, Tech pounced and took advantage of Georgia’s slow starts that has plagued the Lady Bulldogs in three of their past four games. Tech built a lead that swelled to as high as eight points. Georgia looked sloppy, committing six turnovers, allowing seven offensive rebounds in the first five minutes and getting only half as many shot attempts (10) as Tech (20) through the first period.

Love scored nine of her 14 points in the first quarter. Taylor said an early hole proved crucial in the final result, and Georgia must allow fewer live-ball turnovers in order to find an early rhythm.

“That first quarter really ate us alive,” Morrison said.

Over the next quarter-and-a-half, momentum flipped and Georgia looked much like the team that had won its first seven contests and notched a couple of signature wins over Notre Dame and Marquette. The Lady Bulldogs went on a 16-5 run over the second and third quarters. Tech had prolonged scoring droughts, and it led to Georgia’s fast-paced offense to come to life. Over that stretch, Barker made two 3-point shots and Morrison notched eight of her 15 points.

Suddenly, after Georgia held an 11-point lead, Tech flipped the fortune in its favor. A smothering defense, mainly in a 2-3 zone, rattled Georgia. Taylor said the Lady Bulldogs became “undisciplined” on defense, and the frontcourt talents of Hermosa and Lorela Cubaj went to work. Tech took advantage of Cubaj’s passing, and Georgia didn’t get enough pressure on one of the country’s top players.

Tech finished the game on a 25-13 run, with a smaller and more-dominant 7-0 run in that stretch. Georgia finished with 11 fourth-quarter points at a 24% clip that allowed Tech to claw its way back into contention.

Bates, who struggled to find a shooting rhythm, made two game-changing 3-pointers. Avyonce Carter also entered immediately after Georgia built its lead to 11, and made some significant plays while not regularly being a major contributor in Fortner’s short-by-design rotation.

“Little things don’t make the headlines of the newspaper, but there are so many little things in the game of a big win that can go unnoticed,” Fortner said. “That definitely didn’t go unnoticed on me. There are things that happened after that 11-point deficit that pointed to being tough and being dogged in the process.”

Tech’s sixth victory of the season comes at an opportune time with conference play nearing. The Jackets needed a jolt of momentum. Fortner’s dominoes haven’t fallen in the exact fashion she would’ve liked after advancing to the Sweet 16 and taking South Carolina to the brink in March. Tech had plenty of promise, but then attrition came at the guard spots. Loyal McQueen, who started in three games, entered the transfer portal. Kierra Fletcher opted to return for her extra season of eligibility, but is out for the season with a foot injury.

Tech even had to hold its breath with new ball-handler and star guard Lotta-Maj Lahtinen. She injured her knee against Hofstra, missed the loss at Purdue, and was designated as a game-time decision against Georgia. She logged 33 minutes and notched seven points, four rebounds and three assists.

“We’re still a work in progress and not anywhere close to where we need to be to continue on through this conference season,” Fortner said. “We’ve only played eight games in the season, and this is probably the most I’ve had to overcome this early. These kids are resilient.”