Nell Fortner ‘absolutely’ confident in Georgia Tech’s direction

Georgia Tech head coach Nell Fortner watches from the sidelines during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game against North Carolina State, Monday, Feb. 7, 2022, in Raleigh, N.C. (AP Photo/Karl B. DeBlaker)

Credit: AP

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Georgia Tech head coach Nell Fortner watches from the sidelines during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game against North Carolina State, Monday, Feb. 7, 2022, in Raleigh, N.C. (AP Photo/Karl B. DeBlaker)

Credit: AP

Editor’s note: This is the first in a series examining the current state of athletic programs at Georgia Tech. Today’s installment focuses on women’s basketball.

If Nell Fortner needed any confirmation about where her program stood among its peers, the Georgia Tech basketball coach received it in April.

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Needing scoring help, Fortner recruited and signed two sought-after guards in the transfer portal – Cameron Swartz from Boston College and Bianca Jackson from Florida State. Swartz was a first-team All-ACC selection and the conference’s most improved player and had power-conference schools from across the country reaching out to her after she went in the transfer portal. Swartz, from Marietta and Fellowship Christian School, chose Tech over Duke, Miami and N.C. State.

Jackson led the Seminoles in scoring and assists in the 2020-21 season after having been a part-time starter in her first two college seasons with powerhouse South Carolina. She has started 56 games over four seasons on NCAA Tournament teams.

That Jackson and Swartz picked Tech was a marker of the status that the Yellow Jackets have gained with back-to-back NCAA Tournament berths, among other attributes.

“I don’t think there’s any doubt about it,” Fortner said in an interview with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “I think that Georgia Tech, I think we’re proving that we’re a high-level team that’s going to play in the NCAA Tournament, and we’re wanting to really push the envelope to get to a Final Four.”

In the summer before her fourth season at Tech, Fortner finds herself at a significant juncture in her tenure. Fortner led the Jackets to their consecutive NCAA berths (a first since a six-year run from 2007-12) and the second Sweet 16 appearance in team history, in 2021, largely with players inherited from former coach MaChelle Joseph.

Aside from center Nerea Hermosa, her fourth team will consist only of players whom she has recruited and signed. Among the losses are two-time ACC Defensive Player of the Year Lorela Cubaj, three-year starter and scoring leader Lotta-Maj Lahtinen and versatile grad-transfer Digna Strautmane. The Jackets will have to replace 57% of their scoring and 54% of their rebounding, and that doesn’t include four-year starter Kierra Fletcher, who sat out the entire season with a foot injury and has transferred to South Carolina to use her extra COVID-19 season.

“That core group that we inherited is gone, but they allowed us to get on solid ground,” Fortner said. “They’ve left. Now I feel really good about the ground we’ve built on.”

“I think that Georgia Tech, I think we're proving that we're a high-level team that's going to play in the NCAA Tournament, and we're wanting to really push the envelope to get to a Final Four."

- Yellow Jackets coach Nell Fortner

Fortner acknowledged, though, that in moving forward with a roster that consists of nearly all players that she has recruited, she’s crossing a threshold.

“I guess there is somewhat of that, however you want to say it,” she said. “It’s like, now, it’s moving into this era, so let’s hope I don’t screw it up.”

Fortner laughed in making the self-deprecating comment, perhaps an indication of her confidence in the team and staff that she has assembled. Tech will have to go forward without chief of staff Mickie DeMoss, a member of the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame who announced her retirement last week after a 45-year career in women’s basketball. And Fortner had to replace assistant coach Murriel Page, who was hired by Mississippi State, by hiring LaSondra Barrett from Houston.

Fortner said she’ll never feel satisfied with the state of her team and acknowledged that there’s work to do.

“Do we have it in the right direction?” she asked. “Absolutely.”

While the 2021-22 season ended in disappointing fashion – the Jackets were 18-4 before losing seven of their final 10 games, including their first-round NCAA Tournament game to Kansas – the team’s overall accomplishments do speak to Fortner’s assessment.

Fletcher missed the whole season with a foot injury. Lahtinen moved over to take her place but played most of the season with a meniscus tear in her knee. Guard Loyal McQueen, a returning starter, played three games and then went into the transfer portal, ultimately landing at Alabama. Assistant coach Tasha Butts was diagnosed with breast cancer and had to take a step back from her coaching duties.

“We faced so much adversity last year,” Fortner said. “It affected our depth on our team. Because, eventually, we finished with, really, not the team we thought we were going to have.”

Despite that, Tech won back-to-back nonconference games over archrival Georgia (its second in a row in Athens after having never won there in team history) and Connecticut, ending the Huskies’ 240-game win streak against unranked opponents. The Jackets led Division I in defensive scoring into February and finished sixth nationally, first in the ACC, and were 23rd in Division I in field-goal percentage defense. Tech peaked in the AP poll at 11th on Feb. 7, its highest ranking in team history. The team finished with a winning record in ACC play (11-7) for the third year in a row after the Jackets had not posted a winning conference record in the five previous seasons.

The sluggish 10-game finish – all seven losses were to NCAA Tournament teams – was the product of a team feeling the effect of having played with limited depth, according to Fortner.

“It’s just the reality – I thought we wore out at the end of the season,” Fortner said. “And so making the NCAA Tournament is always our goal, but you always want to go as far as you can, and we didn’t go as far as we had projected before the season started. But I’m super proud of the effort and how hard we worked during the season to accomplish what we did.”

But the work begins anew in the offseason. Fortner has two returning starters in Hermosa and guard Eylia Love and the grad transfers Swartz and Jackson. She’ll have to depend more on backups such as forwards Aixa Wone Aranaz and Kayla Blackshear (a midseason transfer from Alabama) and guards Avyonce Carter and Elizabete Bulane. Tech has four incoming freshmen, including guards Tonie Morgan and Kara Dunn (of Mount Paran Christian School), rated the Nos. 24 and 61 prospects in the 2022 class by ESPN, respectively.

“You can look at (the production lost) and go, ‘Wow, we’ve got a lot of work to do,’” Fortner said. “But that’s how it is every year. You have a new team every year. It doesn’t matter the returners or what. But we feel like we’ve put together a pretty strong group. I love our freshman class. I think they’re legit.”

One welcome change is the return of Butts, who was cleared to return to coaching June 1, Fortner said.

“She’s doing really well,” Fortner said. “She still has her battle, but she is doing really well, feeling better and she’s back with us.”

The Jackets have been effective on defense in Fortner’s first three seasons – with Cubaj playing a large role in that strength – but not as productive with the ball. Fortner wants to change that.

“We’ve added scorers, and we knew we had to do that,” she said. “So we’re going to change our style of play. We’re quicker, we’re faster, but we’re smaller. I mean, we are smaller. But hopefully we can put more points on the board.”

Fortner mentioned two other long-term plans – to increase attendance and, not unrelated, to strengthen nonconference scheduling. Average home attendance this past season was 1,998, the highest since the 2010-11 season (which, not coincidentally, was the last time Connecticut played at Tech) and at least 34% larger than any season since. Fortner wants to bring in more support, both from fans and alumni and the student body, saying that the relatively compactness of the campus community “is perfect” for significant student attendance.

“One of our big pushes now is to really create the buzz that we are something that people want to come see, you want to come watch us play,” she said. “You want to come support women’s basketball at Georgia Tech. I feel good about some of the crowds we’ve had there; we just want that on a more consistent level.”

One vehicle for doing that is by bringing in big-name nonconference opponents. Fortner said that she gets calls “all the time” from out-of-state coaches wanting to schedule games at Tech in order for their players from Georgia to have a chance to play in front of family and friends. That was how last year’s game against Connecticut was scheduled. Outside of the annual game with Georgia and the ACC/Big Ten Challenge game, Fortner said that she wants to add at least one more game against a notable power-conference opponent annually.

“Even though you might not beat them, you’ve got to play them,” Fortner said. “People want to come see those high-level games.”

That is all part of Fortner’s vision for the Jackets to be a perennial Top 25 team.

“Absolutely,” she said. “That goal has not changed.”

Ahead of a season with a new core and an anticipated change in style, it’s a challenge that Fortner welcomes.

The end of last season “wasn’t the finish we wanted, but we’ve got to get back there,” she said. “We’ve got a lot to prove. It’s not like people are going to set it in Georgia Tech’s lap.”