No. 18 Georgia Tech metes out thumping to No. 20 North Carolina

Georgia Tech guard Lotta-Maj Lahtinen led the No. 18 Yellow Jackets to a 55-38 win over No. 20 North Carolina Jan. 23, 2022 at McCamish Pavilion. (Georgia Tech Athletics)

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Georgia Tech guard Lotta-Maj Lahtinen led the No. 18 Yellow Jackets to a 55-38 win over No. 20 North Carolina Jan. 23, 2022 at McCamish Pavilion. (Georgia Tech Athletics)

Another game, another defensive wipeout.

Aggressive on the defensive glass, insistent in challenging shots and deft in playing help defense, No. 18 Georgia Tech squeezed No. 20 North Carolina in a 55-38 win Sunday afternoon at McCamish Pavilion.

The Yellow Jackets held the Tar Heels, second in the ACC and 17th nationally in scoring at 77.8 points per game, to their season low in points, less than half their season average. It was also North Carolina’s second lowest field-goal percentage (29.1%) of the season. The Division I leader in scoring defense, Tech asserted itself again in winning for the fifth time in the past six games.

“That’s just who we are,” coach Nell Fortner said. “We’re a tough defensive team.”

Tech (15-4 overall, 6-2 ACC) improved to 3-1 for the season against Top 25 opponents while also ending the Tar Heels’ four-game winning streak in the series. Thanks to their defensive play, the Jackets had little trouble even on a day when they were off their game offensively, owing at least in part to North Carolina’s own defensive capacities (fourth nationally in field goal percentage defense, 12th in scoring defense).

North Carolina (15-3, 5-3) fell behind 29-9 three minutes into the second quarter and never led. The Jackets furnished another emphatic data point for the NCAA Tournament selection committee as they advance toward a second consecutive tournament berth, which hasn’t been done at Tech since a run of six consecutive NCAA appearances (2007-12) with former coach MaChelle Joseph. North Carolina was ranked fifth in the NCAA’s NET ranking prior to the game. Tech was 25th.

“That’s a good win (Sunday),” Fortner said. “That’s a really good North Carolina team that can come at you in a lot of different ways.”

The Jackets’ proficiency as a defensive unit was particularly on display in the third quarter, which began with Tech ahead 32-19. Even as the Jackets struggled to score, finishing with 11 points for the quarter, they still managed to extend the lead by holding the Tar Heels to 10 points.

On a Tar Heels fast break, guard Lotta-Maj Lahtinen stripped guard Eva Hodgson and gained possession for Tech when the ball went out of bounds off Hodgson.

On a later possession, Hodgson tried to take forward Digna Strautmane off the dribble from the right wing, only to have forward Lorela Cubaj help with a double team against the baseline that forced Hodgson into a pass to the opposite wing that Lahtinen picked off.

Cubaj, reigning ACC co-defensive player of the year, retreated on a 2-on-1 fast break and swatted guard Kennedy Todd-Williams’ layup try out of bounds. In another open-court possession, Tar Heels guard Deja Kelly thought better of trying to score on Tech center Nerea Hermosa and passed to guard Alyssa Ustby, who likewise was rejected by Cubaj, one of her three blocks in the quarter.

“I thought we did a better job locking in in the second half,” Fortner said. “North Carolina does some things that, it’s hard to guard. They get downhill on you quick with their strong hand and it’s difficult to guard. They’re very determined in that area. I thought we had some kids that stepped up and did some big things.”

Cubaj finished with nine points, 10 rebounds, four assists and three blocks with one turnover in 36 minutes. She had a scare in the final two minutes of the game, when she landed awkwardly on her right foot while trying to block a shot and immediately grabbed her right ankle. The announced crowd of 2,357 – Tech’s second largest home attendance of the season – fell silent before Cubaj was helped off the floor. Fortner said afterward that Cubaj was “OK.”

The Jackets sped to a 23-9 at the end of the first quarter and then scored the first six points of the second quarter behind Lahtinen’s strong play. In the first quarter alone, the senior registered seven points on 3-for-3 shooting (including one 3-pointer), two assists, one steal, one rebound and drew two fouls on the defensive end. She finished with 12 points, six assists, four steals and four rebounds against four turnovers. With her last basket, she reached 1,000 points for her career, becoming the 33rd player in Tech history to attain that milestone.

“The bigger the game, the more competitive and gritty she is, and this was a big game for us,” Fortner said. “And so I thought she was her normal self. She’s just going to compete until her head falls off. It’s just the way she is, the way she’s built.”

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