“They were really loud and they were like the home team. It was unexpected for us.” senior forward Lorela Cubaj said. “It played a factor.”
Forty minutes and some change later, Georgia Tech flipped its fortunes with furiosity. Its press-centric defense and a glimmer of offensive rhythm resulted in a 54-52 victory that ended on a Stephen F. Austin miss as the final buzzer sounded in overtime.
Cubaj, after suffering an early second quarter injury, led the Yellow Jackets with 14 points, 10 rebounds and her share of clutch baskets. The victory gives Georgia Tech its first NCAA Tournament win since 2012.
“I’m so proud of our kids for how we fought being 17 (points) down,” Georgia Tech head coach Nell Fortner said, who won her first tournament game since coaching Auburn in 2009. “We really did a good job of fighting and believing.”
After a brief back-and-forth battle, Stephen F. Austin took early control. The Ladyjacks had a 15-2 run in the first quarter. Georgia Tech had the size advantage. It performed well enough in rebounding, and its defense didn’t fade too much. But the Yellow Jackets couldn’t find the basket.
In the first half, Georgia Tech went more than 10 minutes between baskets. A buzzer-beating 3-pointer from Kierra Fletcher was all it could muster. Cubaj sensed the confidence trickling downhill, and Stephen F. Austin began to rapidly separate itself and a rout seemed to be in the works.
“We were taken aback at how physical the game was. They took it at us,” Fortner said. “We faced a deep hole to dig ourselves out of.”
“We were not playing together,” Cubaj said. “We had some nerves, too. We had to get rid of those and play our game.”
Out of the halftime intermission, which focused on Georgia Tech making the most out of “20 minutes left in our season,” Fortner said, everything looked different. The Yellow Jackets went on a 6-0 run to open the half after switching to a smothering press defense. Georgia Tech found ways to use its frontcourt offensively, especially Cubaj and Nerea Hermosa, after not doing so in the first half.
Georgia Tech outscored Stephen F. Austin 19-5 in the third quarter, and a buzzer-beating 3-pointer by Loyal McQueen cut the deficit to three. A back-and-forth final quarter forced the Yellow Jackets to surge back after trailing by six. Cubaj became the hero as she scored on consecutive possessions.
“The press was good to us. It allowed us to cut into that lead and give us some confidence back that we lost in the first half,” Fortner said. “The press was the difference-maker in pressuring them into shots they might not have taken. The will to execute that was really good.”
Once overtime began, freshman Anaya Boyd brought the Stephen F. Austin roars to silence. She aggressively drove toward the basket, sank a layup and got hacked.
All of a sudden, the sea parted and hushed.
“We had to do what’s necessary to survive and advance,” Fortner said.
Georgia Tech will next face No. 4 West Virginia, who defeated No. 13 Lehigh 78-68 on Sunday. The teams will tip off at 5:30 p.m. Tuesday from the UTSA Convocation Center on ESPNU.