Tech pieced together an impressive effort by answering most South Carolina runs. It got its exposure of playing on ABC and on the tournament’s biggest stage of the Alamodome. Fletcher said “Why not us?” and the Jackets were a few shots away from continuing as the surprise in the tournament.
“Our will to win was excellent as it always is,” Fortner said. “We just didn’t have enough weapons, couldn’t make enough stops at the end.”
Tech had nearly everything working for it in the first half. South Carolina had it working offensively, especially with balanced guard play and the emergence of backup forward Leticia Amihere. But so did Tech.
Lotta-Maj Lahtinen replicated her performance against West Virginia with 16 points in the first half. Lorela Cubaj found a rhythm in the second quarter, but then picked up two fouls. Her absence would seem to hurt the Jackets as South Carolina’s lead swelled, but Lahtinen and Loyal McQueen filled the scoring column in her absence.
All the while, Tech held Aliyah Boston, regarded as one of the nation’s top players, without a point through 20 minutes. Zia Cooke, however, had hit three 3-pointers and Amihere added 10 points by the intermission.
South Carolina separated itself out of the locker room, which it had done on numerous occasions this season. The Gamecocks didn’t waste time feeding Boston as seven of her nine points came within the first two minutes and the avalanche of points in the paint continued. South Carolina shot 71% in the third quarter and hit 10 of its first 11 shots.
“It’s hard when we’re playing against an All-American post player,” Fletcher said. “We pride ourselves on our defense. This game, it got away from us a little bit.”
Fortner said she thought Tech could exploit some of South Carolina’s weaknesses. She didn’t shy away from admitting she liked the matchup. But the Gamecocks had some breaks bounce their way that the Jackets didn’t expect.
South Carolina hit eight 3-pointers in the victory at a 57% clip. It’s the highest percentage allowed by Tech and tied for the most conversions allowed this season. The Gamecocks had three double-digit scorers and two more with nine points, and Tech struggled against the balance when South Carolina’s offense clicked on all cylinders.
“We’ve taken good shots (in previous games), but couldn’t get them to fall,” South Carolina coach Dawn Staley said. “It helped a great deal. If we can get that going, it gives us an extra layer of confidence.”
A final period remained and Tech trailed by 12. It went to the press that worked well in the comeback win over Stephen F. Austin, and the Jackets almost mimicked that success with six quick points to open the fourth.
Fletcher erupted with 13 second-half points, and two of those buckets came in clutch situations to trim the deficit. Each time South Carolina extended the lead to double digits, the Jackets had an answer. But after Fletcher’s three, a spurt by the Gamecocks followed and time ran out on finishing the comeback.
“Our team did an incredible job of answering whenever South Carolina went on their runs,” Fletcher said. “I think it shows how resilient we are as a team, that we don’t have any quit in us.”
Tech has only two seniors, and they can return for another season due to the ramifications of the pandemic. Fletcher, the only player to speak after the game, said she will consider it over the coming days.
Fortner walked out with a smile as she knew her program made history in year two of her tenure. Tech can set its slipper to the side, because it might need it in coming seasons.
“We’ll continue to build this program and play at a high level,” Fortner said. “(We can) get back to this tournament and see if we can go a little bit farther.”