Georgia Tech women advance to ACC quarterfinals

Georgia Tech made an early statement and built a double-digit lead over Wake Forest in Thursday night’s ACC tournament game by leaning on its strength — stout interior defense and offensive movement. On the first possession of the second quarter, however, it got a lot tougher for the Jackets in Greensboro, N.C.

Fifth-year senior and league defensive player of the year Lorela Cubaj went down after getting tangled up with Wake Forest’s Olivia Summiel. Cubaj cried in pain as a hard fall resulted in her chin slamming onto the hardwood. After blood was cleaned from her face, Cubaj went to the locker room. She returned to the bench in the third quarter with immense bandaging but didn’t return to the court.

But a Tech team with veteran leadership found a way to lean on the defense that was once regarded as the nation’s best. The Jackets struggled offensively, but they did just enough to beat the Demon Deacons 45-40. The win was Tech’s third over the ACC foe this season, and earned the Jackets a spot in Friday’s quarterfinals against Notre Dame, with or without Cubaj.

“I don’t know the status of Lorela Cubaj,” Georgia Tech coach Nell Fortner said after the game. “She is fine, but it is a matter of going through some protocols to make sure she can play tomorrow. We will know more about that tomorrow.”

ExploreMore from the AJC on Georgia Tech sports

Tech has found its footing again with consecutive wins, each over Wake Forest, after losing five of six contests to finish out the regular season.

“Our bench had to step up and they did,” guard Lotta-Maj Lahtinen said. “I’m really proud of the whole team and how we handled that.”

To open play, Tech didn’t allow Wake Forest to have any offensive rhythm. The Demon Deacons didn’t score for the final four-and-a-half minutes of play and missed their first seven shots. Tech had an offensive surge led by nine points from Eylia Love.

Wake Forest’s zone proved to be a factor for Tech, especially without the passing prowess of Cubaj on the floor. Along with the senior’s defensive presence and reliable rebounding, Cubaj also averaged 4.4 assists per game.

“There was an adjustment period for all of our kids to adjust without her on the floor,” Fortner said. “We don’t play without her very often. There was a period of time we had to adjust, and I’m proud of how we fought through hard times.”

All the while, Tech’s defense held strong. Wake Forest’s Jewell Spear is one of the ACC’s most-prolific scorers, but faced the hindrance of a foot injury, her coach Jenn Hoover said. Spear has posted gaudy scoring totals at times, but the Jackets have consistently defended the three-level scorer well.

Thursday night proved no different as Spear’s 11 points came on 16 shots and included a 1-for-11 night from behind the 3-point line.

“Our defense was pretty on point. I can’t argue with (22)%,” Fortner said. “We gave up too many offensive rebounds, and that’s a problem. A lot of that was Cubaj out of the game. She usually cleans the boards up for us. You can see how we’re used to it. Our boxing-out and technique wasn’t there, because she normally grabs them all.”

Thursday’s game fell one point shy of the lowest-scoring game in ACC tournament history, a 45-39 win for Miami over Virginia Tech in 2013. Much of that had to do with Tech’s defense (along with the Wake Forest zone) against a depleted Demon Deacons group. Wake Forest had numerous scoreless spells of over four minutes in length. It scored fewer than eight points in each of the first two quarters.

Wake Forest had 18 more shot attempts than Tech, but made three fewer. Along with 22% from the field, a usually-steady 3-point shooting team hit 3-of-18 shots from beyond the arc.

“Their defense is tough and gritty. They hang their hats on it and it’s one of the best in the country,” Hoover said. “It’s hard when you get some downhill penetration, then you’re running into 6-foot-5. Our guards were getting to the rim, but they’re long and present some problems.”

As Cubaj went out, another vital veteran piece for Tech closed the deal. Lahtinen didn’t have her best shooting night at 3-for-10, but she couldn’t be stopped in the final minute. She scored four of the last five points in regulation, and willed Tech to the next round.

By the end of the night, Tech made its statement in a tough situation.

“The shot that hit us was Lahtinen’s 3,” Hoover said. “She hit a big shot on a stage where you expect your seniors to step up.”