Struggling on offense, Georgia Tech awaits No. 3 Connecticut

Georgia Tech basketball coach Nell Fortner huddles with her team during an early-season game at McCamish Pavilion. (Georgia Tech Athletics)

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Georgia Tech basketball coach Nell Fortner huddles with her team during an early-season game at McCamish Pavilion. (Georgia Tech Athletics)

The timing isn’t ideal for Georgia Tech to play No. 3 Connecticut. On Thursday, the same day that the Yellow Jackets face the biggest name in women’s college basketball at McCamish Pavilion, they’ll also begin their final-exam period.

And, on the floor, they’re also trying to figure themselves out on offense.

“But it’s nice to come off of a win going into Connecticut, for sure,” coach Nell Fortner told the AJC. “A big win.”

Tech did defeat then-No. 20 Georgia on Sunday in Athens by a 55-54 score, the Jackets’ second consecutive win at Stegeman Coliseum. But the level of difficulty rises considerably with the Huskies.

Tech won’t have to contend with UConn star guard Paige Bueckers, who last season became the first freshman to win the Wooden Award, Naismith Trophy, Associated Press player of the year and the USBWA player of the year. Bueckers is out six to eight weeks after suffering a fracture in her left knee in the Huskies’ win over Notre Dame on Sunday.

Connecticut hasn’t attained its 5-1 record and didn’t reach the Final Four last season, its 13th in a row, on the strength of one player, however impactful. But this will be a test of the Huskies. Connecticut coach Geno Auriemma said after Sunday’s game that, “I don’t like our team without her on the court. I mean, I might have to like it if she misses any time, but I don’t like the way our team looks when she’s not on the floor.”

Tech will have to figure out a way to keep up with the Huskies’ scoring. The Jackets brought back all five starters from their Sweet 16 team a season ago, but are without two of them. Guard Kierra Fletcher is out for the season after foot surgery, and guard Loyal McQueen went into the transfer portal after the third game this season.

“It was a surprise, and I don’t have an answer for you on that one,” Fortner said of McQueen’s decision.

The subtractions have caused a reshuffling of Fortner’s lineup as she has tried different combinations to play together. On offense, in particular, it has been a challenge. Fortner said that the offensive play has been “panicked,” as the Jackets have shot 39.9% from the field, which ranked 197th in Division I after Tuesday’s games. A year ago, they ranked 87th at 42.3%.

“We just haven’t found our rhythm yet,” Fortner said. “Maybe that’s the best way to say it.”

In their three games against power-conference competition, the Jackets have failed to clear 55 points. In one of the three, Tech’s 53-52 loss at Purdue in the Big Ten/ACC Challenge, the Jackets also were without point guard Lotta-Maj Lahtinen.

“I have total confidence we’ll get there,” Fortner said. “It’s just taken us a little longer.”

On the other hand, the Jackets have performed on defense. Tech ranked seventh in Division I in field-goal percentage defense as of Wednesday morning, at 31.6%, and 37th in blocked shots per game (4.9). The Jackets ranked 196th a year ago (40.7%). Even in losing two of their three games against power-conference competition (to Purdue and Auburn, while beating Georgia), Tech held Purdue and Georgia to their lowest point totals of the season and also held Auburn under its scoring average.

“That’s an area of our game that’s locked down by Lorela Cubaj, and everybody just kind of plays off of her a little bit,” Fortner said.

Thursday’s game was scheduled as a homecoming for Huskies forward Olivia Nelson-Ododa, who was a McDonald’s All-American at Winder-Barrow High. Nelson-Ododa is in her third season starting for the Huskies and is averaging 8.3 points and a team-high 7.3 rebounds.

A larger-than-normal crowd is expected at McCamish, and Fortner made no pretense for the reason.

“We’re trying to build something here, and the fan base is something we’re definitely always trying to build,” she said. “And to have an opportunity to play UConn, where people are going to come in here strictly to see UConn – and I understand that – hopefully they’ll want to come back and continue to support Georgia Tech.”