No. 16 Georgia Tech falters late against No. 3 Louisville

Georgia Tech forward Lorela Cubaj led the Yellow Jackets with 13 points and 16 rebounds in a 50-48 loss to Louisville Jan. 2, 2022 at McCamish Pavilion. (Danny Karnik/Georgia Tech Athletics)

Credit: Danny Karnik

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Georgia Tech forward Lorela Cubaj led the Yellow Jackets with 13 points and 16 rebounds in a 50-48 loss to Louisville Jan. 2, 2022 at McCamish Pavilion. (Danny Karnik/Georgia Tech Athletics)

Credit: Danny Karnik

Credit: Danny Karnik

A statement win was in Georgia Tech’s grasp – a second win over a top-three team behind a standout performance by forward Lorela Cubaj. The Yellow Jackets were managing it with a severely shortened roster, no less.

However, ahead by five points with two minutes remaining, the No. 16 Yellow Jackets were unable to close out No. 3 Louisville and absorbed a 50-48 loss Sunday at McCamish Pavilion.

“We had ‘em on the ropes,” Tech coach Nell Fortner said. “I thought we did everything we could to beat them (Sunday). Down the stretch, they played like the No. 2 team in the country and took advantage of some of things that we didn’t react to fast enough. But we’ll learn from it.”

Louisville forward Emily Engstler’s drive to the basket from the elbow cleared by a defensive breakdown gave the Cardinals their final 50-48 lead with 3.3 seconds remaining, and Tech guard Lotta-Maj Lahtinen’s desperation shot from just part halfcourt as time expired was off target. Engstler’s basket gave Louisville its first lead since early in the third quarter, the closing score in a game-ending 8-1 run for the Cardinals after Cubaj’s jump hook had given the Jackets a 47-42 lead with 2:56 to play.

Tech (10-3 overall, 1-1 ACC) turned the ball over on its next three possessions to give the Cardinals life. Louisville (12-1, 2-0) turned two of them into four points, and then the Jackets could produce a single point – a Cubaj free throw – on its final three possessions. Playing before an announced crowd of 1,918, Tech finished the game with a season-high 22 turnovers, nine over its season average.

In their bid for a second win over a top-three team (Louisville is No. 3 in the Associated Press poll and No. 2 in the coaches poll) following their Dec. 9 upset of then-No. 3 Connecticut, the Jackets continued their defensive mastery in holding Louisville to its lowest point total since the 2017-18 season. Tech, which entered the game No. 1 in Division I in scoring defense and third in field goal percentage defense, led 11-3 after the first quarter, holding the Cardinals to 1-for-12 shooting with six turnovers.

A win would have propelled the Jackets higher in the polls, given Tech a third win over a ranked team and further established their credentials as a power player.

“I thought we really did some good things for the majority of the day, for about 38 minutes,” Fortner said. “And then there were two minutes that sunk us.”

Lahtinen turned the ball over an uncharacteristic eight times, tying a career high she established in the first game of her freshman season. Louisville had success forcing turnovers by double teaming Lahtinen and inducing errant passes.

“She didn’t have many windows of opportunity (Sunday) to score or get downhill,” Fortner said. “She competed hard, and we’ll try to work on some options. If anybody else tries to do that to us, we’ll be ready for it.”

It didn’t help that Lahtinen’s backup, Sarah Bates, was one of four Jackets players declared unavailable for the game, the other three due to health and safety protocol.

With seven available scholarship players (and no walk-ons), Tech met the ACC’s minimum to be able to play a game. From a competitive perspective, the Jackets were fortunate in that their starting five was intact, but two of Fortner’s primary subs, guards Elizabete Bulane and Bates, were both out. Fortner called Bates’ absence a big difference.

“We can get by with everywhere else, but a point guard is a point guard,” she said. “That’s a different spot on the floor. But no excuses. We’re not making any excuses. We had our opportunity (Sunday) and it just slipped away from us there at the end.”

Four starters played 37 minutes or more.

“We had some tired kids on the floor,” Fortner said.

Cubaj was one of them, as she played all but 43 seconds of the game and finished with 16 rebounds, 12 points, five assists and two steals against five turnovers. Her influence was all over the game, perhaps most exemplified in a 2:09 sequence in the third quarter. In that span, she blocked a shot and dribbled upcourt to feed forward Digna Strautmane for a 3-pointer, thwarted three more Louisville possessions with a rebound, a challenge of a 3-point shot and the induction of a travel, drew a foul on the dribble and helped draw another with a pass to center Nerea Hermosa.

“Lo’s one of the best players in the country,” Fortner said. “She’s having a heck of a year. Maybe offensively she hadn’t shown what she did (Sunday), but she was really locked in. I was proud of her effort (Sunday).”

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