Georgia Tech aims to ‘make noise’ after lengthy absence from NCAA women’s tournament

Georgia Tech women's basketball coach Nell Fortner, who was named ACC coach of the year for the 2020-21 season on March 2, 2021. (Danny Karnik/Georgia Tech Athletics)

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Georgia Tech women's basketball coach Nell Fortner, who was named ACC coach of the year for the 2020-21 season on March 2, 2021. (Danny Karnik/Georgia Tech Athletics)

Georgia Tech knew it would firmly be in the NCAA women’s basketball tournament by Monday’s selection show. It could’ve probably guessed the seed line, too. Twelve years have passed since Nell Fortner’s last tournament-clinching celebration at Auburn, however, and she had to bring the dramatics.

All of the Yellow Jackets crowded around a screen in the same uniform — a long-sleeved postseason shirt and a pair of blue track pants. Tech heard its name called and confetti flew through the air. The players hollered and yelped. Fortner hugged any of her players she could find while surging her arm into the air.

“It’s very satisfying to see these kids fulfill their goals,” Fortner told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “We’re going to have that opportunity to not only play in it, but see what kind of noise we can make.”

Tech (15-8) opens NCAA Tournament play against 12th-seeded Stephen F. Austin (24-2) on Sunday at Bill Greehey Arena in San Antonio (4:30 p.m., ESPNU). Fortner finds herself in a somewhat similar position while leading a group that has yet to experience the biggest stage of tournament play. Tech has only nine NCAA Tournament appearances in program history, only one Sweet 16 showing and hasn’t made the field since 2014.

Fortner’s taste of the dance comes for the first time since the 2008-09 season at Auburn, her last stop before taking a long hiatus from the coaching profession. That Tigers team is vastly different than her balanced Georgia Tech group. Auburn had now-WNBA star DeWanna Bonner leading the way and a talented supporting cast. That led to a No. 2 seed before eventually losing in the second round to Rutgers.

The similarities, however, rest in the core qualities. Fortner hasn’t changed as a coach. She built a team-first culture with an energy that fed her team. The blueprint stays the same, and the success is mirroring.

“Her passion and drive is contagious. I know those kids gravitate to it, too,” said Reneisha Hobbs, who played for Fortner at Auburn and recently returned to the Tigers’ staff. “You are who you are.”

Fortner deflects a lot of the credit when discussing the Jackets’ success that led to one of the tournament’s top seeds. She gives most of it to her players, a veteran group that bought into a new system after the firing of MaChelle Joseph. Fortner has an extension of herself — especially the beaming energy — with her assistants, too.

The experience comes with chief of staff Mickie DeMoss’s six national titles while coaching under Pat Summitt at Tennessee. Assistant coach Tasha Butts played in two national title games as a Lady Vol. Murriel Page played in an Elite Eight at Florida and coached at Central Michigan in its run to the Sweet 16.

They all have the qualities Fortner possesses, but she doesn’t know “if any of them can match my energy.” A special connection to Tech’s conductor makes this group tick.

“It’s very telling when we’re out there on the court that we’re playing for her,” senior Kierra Fletcher said of Fortner. “She’s a very exciting coach to play for, and I think what she’s been able to do here in two years says a lot.”

Tech’s opportunity for an NCAA Tournament run serves as a benchmark in Fortner’s two-year turnaround. If not for the COVID-19 pandemic, the Jackets could be discussing consecutive appearances with a 20-11 finish a season ago.

Fortner is confident in her team’s potential because of the talent within the starting lineup. Lotta-Maj Lahtinen (14.5 points per game) and Fletcher (12.9) lead the way, but the Jackets have four players scoring nine or more points each night.

“We’re trying to arm them with everything they need to go on that floor and play with the right scouting report on their opponent,” Fortner said. “That’s something we do well and hopefully it pays off for us in that tournament.”

Twelve years later, Fortner is back on the NCAA Tournament stage. A coach’s dream is to continuously play at the highest level, and now she gets to mark 2021 as her launching point with the Jackets.

Fortner has the energy and experience. Now, she awaits to see whether more celebrations await.

“We’ve gotten (to the tournament),” Fortner said. “Now you play your heart out to see how far you take this thing.”