NCAA women: 3 factors that led to Tech’s first-round comeback

Georgia Tech forward Lorela Cubaj (13) reacts after a basket by a teammate during the second half  against Stephen F. Austin in the first-round of the women's NCAA Tournament Sunday, March 21, 2021, at the Greehey Arena in San Antonio, Texas. (Ronald Cortes/AP)

Credit: Ronald Cortes

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Georgia Tech forward Lorela Cubaj (13) reacts after a basket by a teammate during the second half against Stephen F. Austin in the first-round of the women's NCAA Tournament Sunday, March 21, 2021, at the Greehey Arena in San Antonio, Texas. (Ronald Cortes/AP)

Credit: Ronald Cortes

Credit: Ronald Cortes

SAN ANTONIO — The contingent of Georgia Tech supporters at Bill Greehey Arena on Sunday could be counted on your fingers and toes. They were outnumbered by those on the Stephen F. Austin guest list in purple and white.

Once the final buzzer sounded and everyone in gold jumped through midair, those dedicated Yellow Jackets got their moment. Each of the players and head coach Nell Fortner waved to those on hand, then turned to a camera to yell in celebratory fashion for those watching nearly a thousand miles away from home.

“We’re in there, baby,” forward Nerea Hermosa said. “Let’s dance. Let’s dance.”

Georgia Tech did it. A 54-52 win over Stephen F. Austin completed an improbable 17-point comeback to advance to Tuesday’s second round game against West Virginia (5:30 p.m., ESPNU). The Yellow Jackets won their first NCAA Tournament game since 2012, the first time anyone on the court could celebrate such a feat.

“It is really important for us,” senior forward Lorela Cubaj said. “We want to survive and advance and prove that we belong here.”

Those elated moments were dreams of Fortner when she stood at the podium to take the reins as Georgia Tech’s head coach nearly two years ago. She knew this experienced group could make a run on the biggest stage, and a win over the Ladyjacks became the launching point.

It took overtime for the Yellow Jackets to get it done, but they dominated the second half for yet another ferocious rally when facing a deficit. Through the fourth quarter and overtime, Stephen F. Austin lacked any answer. It allowed Fortner’s team to etch its name forward in a bracket.

“This is what you do and why you work hard,” Fortner said. “You want to put yourself in a place to compete for a national championship, and this team has fought hard to get themselves here.”

Credit: Ronald Cortes

Credit: Ronald Cortes

Let’s look at three moments that led Georgia Tech to victory.

Halftime speech

Less than a second remained in the first half, and Georgia Tech needed to stop the bleeding. It trailed by 14 and coughed up possession on a bad pass. Stephen F. Austin’s Avery Brittingham drove to the basket, drew contact and hit a free throw before the buzzer.

Georgia Tech found itself doubled up on the scoreboard, 34-17, and looked overmatched.

The Yellow Jackets went into the locker room in need of an answer. Aside from a buzzer-beating 3-pointer from Kierra Fletcher, Georgia Tech went nearly 11 minutes between baskets. It made seven baskets while shooting 24 percent through the first half.

“The major problem was we weren’t playing together. We talked about how we need to stick together,” Cubaj said. “This was our first NCAA game, so we had to remind ourselves to play our game.”

Admittedly, Georgia Tech knew momentum gradually slipped. The players had lost some belief and confidence. Fortner, the energy ball of a coach, didn’t let it die. She had a likely-fiery message that allowed the Yellow Jackets to prevail over a team in which it had numerous advantages over.

Georgia Tech came to life with its press defense and eventually relying on its post play. Loyal McQueen’s buzzer-beating 3-pointer capped a 19-5 advantage in the third quarter.

“It was a talk of ‘Hey, we have 20 minutes left in our season,’ ” Fortner said. “ ‘We have to get out there and get this done.’ We knew what work was ahead of us.”

Credit: Ronald Cortes

Credit: Ronald Cortes

Anaya Boyd’s big moment

Four points from a freshman never had so much value.

Anaya Boyd awaited her moment. The freshman, a former five-star prospect, hasn’t been able to get into a flow. She has dealt with injuries at times this season. Fortner has seen a lot of potential in the young guard, but Boyd has yet to blossom.

That moment might’ve come in the final minutes against Stephen F. Austin. She hauled in a rebound, drove to the basket and drew an and-1 foul in overtime. All of her teammates erupted, because they knew the magnitude of the clutch moment.

“My team needed me to play strong and more confident,” Boyd said. “I wanted to do anything to help us win.”

Boyd logged 12 minutes. She combined for 16 minutes in the previous three games, but Fortner said all of the freshman’s action has been valuable.

Boyd has had something up her sleeve for Georgia Tech on numerous occasions, but this came on the biggest stage. Her two fourth-quarter free throws preceded the layup and tied the game entering the extra period.

“She’s proven game after game that she can contribute,” Cubaj said. “She was really important for us.”

Credit: Ronald Cortes

Credit: Ronald Cortes

Lorela Cubaj’s surge

Midway through the second quarter, Cubaj took a hard fall. Her head made a loud thud on the hardwood, and Georgia Tech’s leader remained on the floor for a while.

The Yellow Jackets couldn’t afford to lose their frontcourt anchor. She had zero points on 0-for-5 shooting at the time, too, so Fortner needed a spark from one of her most-reliable pieces.

Her chances of returning seemed momentarily grim, but Cubaj returned to the bench a few moments later and suddenly stepped back into the post and turned into a different player. Cubaj did everything for Georgia Tech, especially in the second half. She ran in transition, made plenty of acrobatic shots in the post and couldn’t be stopped.

She wanted to elevate her game to another level on the tournament stage. Cubaj did so with 14 points and 10 rebounds. Without her, Georgia Tech wouldn’t have jubilantly celebrated its way off of the floor on Sunday night.

“You do what you do best,” Cubaj said. “At times, that requires me to step out of my comfort zone and my game a little bit.”

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