In a game notable for who was not present as much as who was, Georgia Tech earned the most significant regular-season victory of coach Nell Fortner’s tenure, knocking off No. 3 Connecticut 57-44 Thursday night at McCamish Pavilion.
Led by forward Lorela Cubaj’s all-around game, the Yellow Jackets (7-2) seized control of the game in the fourth quarter as they held Connecticut to its lowest scoring output since a 48-42 loss to Rutgers in February 2006. Going into the quarter tied at 39, the Jackets put the game out of reach with a 15-1 run to start the final period. Connecticut (5-2) was limited to 31% shooting from the field, well below its 50.7% season average. The Huskies saw their 240-game winning streak over unranked opponents come to an end at the hands of the Jackets, who came into the game ranked third in Division I in scoring defense (46.2 points per game) and seventh in field-goal percentage (31.6%). It was a disassembly of the mighty Huskies on a rare order.
“The last 10 minutes of the game, the game could have been won by either team, and the better team won,” Connecticut coach Geno Auriemma said. “We’re in a bad way right now as a team. That’s that.”
The Huskies were without star guard Paige Bueckers, the unquestioned best player in college basketball, after she suffered a knee fracture in their win over Notre Dame on Sunday. Auriemma’s team was further without other players due to academic and injuries and dressed eight players. He gave all but 9:44 of the 200 minutes to six players. After the game, he did not hide his distress with his team’s play on offense and its play in the fourth quarter.
“Their big guys really controlled the game for the most part, and then that fourth quarter, we didn’t respond,” he said. “Which has happened before with this team. So you can blame Paige not being here. Yeah, that’s part of it, but that’s not the real story.”
Tech, meanwhile, were feeling a different kind of loss, as the Jackets played without assistant coach Tasha Butts, who on Wednesday announced that she had been diagnosed with advanced-stage breast cancer. With team chief of staff Mickie DeMoss standing in for Butts – she had said that she plans to continue her duties except when treatment requires that she be away from the team – both coaching staffs wore pink breast-cancer ribbons.
“She’s a fighter,” guard Lotta-Maj Lahtinen said of Butts. “We play for her all the time. She’s part of us.”
Butts attended the team’s shootaround in the morning, and connected with the team in the locker room through FaceTime and was “really happy,” Fortner said.
“These players love her and she loves them, and they have great relationships,” Fortner said, “so we’ll love her right though this and lift her up through it and be with her every step of the way, but it is an emotional thing.”
The last time Tech beat a higher-ranked team was a January 2009 win over then-No. 2 North Carolina. The win builds on the Jackets’ Sweet 16 run in the 2020-21 season, just the second trip to the NCAA Tournament’s third round in team history. After the game, Fortner spoke of her vision for Tech to be what she termed a “premier women’s basketball destination program,” one that prospects in the state of Georgia and nationwide automatically give consideration.
“And so a win like this, sure, it makes waves, it makes noise across the land,” Fortner said. “So we’re super proud of it and happy about it and hopefully it will help us as we continue down the recruiting trail.”
Lahtinen led Tech with a game-high 15 points with three assists. Cubaj scored five, but totaled 13 rebounds and seven assists, both game highs.
Cubaj worked in tandem with center Nerea Hermosa, who played all 40 minutes and scored 13 points with six rebounds.
“They always set the tone,” Fortner said of Cubaj and Lahtinen. “Those are two tough gritty players. I’m not sure I’ll ever coach two grittier players as them. They just refuse to lose, for the most part.”
Cubaj was practically unstoppable in the fourth quarter. She started it by finding Hermosa alone under the basket for a score, then did it again to push the lead to 43-39. She hit a jumper of her own for a 45-40 lead and then found Hermosa again for a jumper and a 47-40 lead. In the fourth quarter alone, she scored three points, grabbed six rebounds and assisted on four baskets, along with two steals.
“That’s an amazing feeling,” Cubaj said.
With a crowd of 4,578 – the second largest women’s basketball attendance at McCamish since its opening in 2012 – urging the Jackets on, the support built with each passing defensive stop in the final quarter. Jackets players lingered on the court afterwards, celebrating the monumental win and giving their thanks to the pompom-waving student section.
“Can I just add that the crowd today definitely gave us that energy?” Lahtinen asked. “Every time we got a charge or a stop or a rebound or a score, the whole McCamish just erupted. That was an amazing feeling. It definitely gave us energy and in the end, when we realized that it’s our game, I got goose bumps because everybody was in it with us. It was pretty cool.”
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