“The emotion is just really happy for these kids,” Fortner said. “They work extremely hard, and we’ve all been through this pandemic under some tough circumstances.”
The Jackets are headed to the regional semifinals for the second time in program history. Eight seasons have passed since Tech has reached the Sweet 16. It marks the deepest NCAA Tournament run for Fortner, who took her first job as a head coach in 1996 at Purdue.
“This is why we play, to play in these big games and to play in the Sweet 16,” said Lotta-Maj Lahtinen, a junior guard. “This is what we dreamed of, and we’re going to go all the way. I’m really proud of my team.”
Early on, Tech looked like it was going to repeat its opening half from 48 hours earlier against Stephen F. Austin. Eight early turnovers plagued the Jackets as West Virginia scored 11 points off the miscues, and it led to a 9-0 run and a sizable lead. Tech couldn’t find any offensive flow because of few valued possessions, until late in the period.
West Virginia’s Kysre Gondrezick missed a 3-pointer off a Tech turnover. Lahtinen hauled in the rebound, and that served as the catalyst. Cubaj joined forces with her fellow senior and willed the Jackets to a 9-2 run to finish the quarter.
Fortner might be able to add half-court offense wizardry into her coaching arsenal. After prioritizing better shot selection, Tech consistently found a stroke in the second quarter. Lahtinen couldn’t miss as 17 of her 22 points came before the intermission, and the scoring came at all three levels.
Tech never stopped scoring, either. It combined for 42 points in the second and third quarters, finishing with a shooting clip of 52% (29-for-56).
Lahtinen couldn’t miss. She shot an efficient 9-of-15. Cubaj finished the 1-2 punch with another double-double, 21 points and 12 rebounds. Fletcher added 14 points in the game’s momentum-shifting moments.
Once Tech scored, that allowed the team to turn to its strength — a stifling defense. The Jackets slowed West Virginia to a crawl on the court that’s home to a team called the Roadrunners. A 9-0 Tech run in the second quarter coincided with a 4:48 scoring drought for the Mountaineers. They went over five minutes without a field goal.
On numerous occasions this season, West Virginia could lean on Gondrezick to score in bunches as their lead guard. She finished with only three points Tuesday, and she made only one shot through three quarters when the Jackets started to build on their lead.
Tech built its lead to as much as 20 because it never laid off the defensive throttle. In fact, it went to another level. West Virginia scored one point through nearly five minutes in the third quarter and got off only two shots. Much of that could be attributed to five turnovers being forced by Tech in the quarter.
The Jackets also compiled a massive rebounding advantage, 36-22. Cubaj piloted the glass with 12 rebounds.
“I’m so proud of their effort today. I thought defensively we were just locked in,” Fortner said. “I thought we played some excellent defense.”
Aside from the opening minutes, Tech played one of its most complete games of the season.
The buzzer sounded, and they all got the bigger hug with a swarm of navy jerseys. Now, they’ll get the chance to sting once more.
“This is why you play,” Lahtinen said.
Tech (17-8) will face South Carolina, the top seed in the Hemisfair Region. The game will be played at 1 p.m. Sunday at the Alamodome in downtown San Antonio. The Gamecocks beat Oregon State 59-42 Tuesday.
West Virginia finished its season at 22-7.