STANFORD, Calif. - Georgia Tech women’s basketball coach Nell Fortner can’t estimate how many times she has set foot in Stanford’s Maples Pavilion, site of this weekend’s NCAA tournament.
The ninth-seeded Yellow Jackets (21-10) battle eighth-seeded Kansas (20-9) in a Spokane Region first-round game today at 7:30 p.m. The winner faces the winner of top-seed Stanford (28-3) and No. 16 Montana State (22-12) in Sunday’s second-round matchup at a time yet to be determined.
Fortner headed the USA Basketball program from 1997 to 2000 and she, on occasion, had her team practicing at Maples.
“I’ve been impressed with Maples,” Fortner said. “The floor is really nice. It’s kind of bouncy. It’s an iconic venue.”
Fortner and the Yellow Jackets - making their second straight tournament appearance, 11th overall - hope the ball bounces their way in what should be an even game. Both teams are similar in many ways. The Jayhawks and Yellow Jackets each finished 11-7 in their respective conference. Each team received three votes outside of the most recent Associated Press Top 25 poll.
Both clubs feature quality height in the interior. The Yellow Jackets are led on the inside by 6-foot-4 forward Lorela Cubaj and 6-5 junior center Nerea Hermosa, who averages 10.7 points, 5.6 rebounds per game. Cubaj, born in Italy, is the reigning two-time Defensive Player of the Year in the Atlantic Coast Conference. The fifth-year Cubaj is more valuable than Scotch Tape, averaging 10.1 points, 11.1 rebounds, 4 assists per game. She has 44 steals and 40 blocks on the year.
Kansas coach Brandon Schneider calls Cubaj a “terrific player.”
“She is a double-double machine, very skilled,” said Schneider of Cubaj. “She’s terrific around the basket, but she can stretch her game out on the perimeter. I’m impressed with her as a passer. She creates for her teammates and is an elite defender.”
Kansas counters with 6-6 center Taiyanna Jackson and 6-3 forward Ioanna Chatzileonti. Jackson, who has 90 blocks, averages 8.8 points and 8.2 rebounds per game. The paint could very well be where the action is as the two teams vie for the, probable, right to take on the defending national champ on Sunday.
“You’re going to see really good post players on the floor (Friday),” Fortner said. “They have 6-6, 6-3. We have 6-5, 6-4. It’s going to be an interesting battle and interesting to see how it is officiated. We’re, probably, going to see three officials we haven’t seen us year long. And they, probably, haven’t seen Kansas all year long.”
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