Women’s basketball set for March Madness

Tech’s starters huddle with head coach Nell Fortner during their February 28 win over Pitt. // Photo by Taylor Gray, Student Publications

Following a 65-60 victory over Pittsburgh on senior day to close out the regular season, Nell Fortner’s squad headed to Greensboro for the ACC Tournament and made one last attempt to strengthen their resume before Selection Monday on March 15. Finishing third in the ACC this season, the Jackets earned a double bye, putting them in the quarterfinals against Clemson, who was coming off a five point win over Notre Dame the day before.

A tough first quarter saw Clemson holding a lead most of the way, but ended tied at 15. Clemson opened the second quarter with a run that took their lead up to five, but the Jackets rallied quickly and took the lead with 2:13 left in the first half.

Tech took a lead of five into halftime. Through the third quarter the Jackets opened up a lead that grew as large as nine with 0:47 left in the 3rd quarter.

Clemson started the fourth quarter with an 8-0 run that brought the game to within one, but the Jackets rallied behind their seniors Kierra Fletcher and Lorela Cubaj, scoring four points each in the last five minutes of the game, to escape with a three point win and advance to the semifinals. Fletcher led the team in scoring with 21 points, followed closely by freshman guard Loyal McQueen with 14 and Cubaj’s double-double of 12 points and 18 rebounds.

The semifinal matchup saw a rematch for Tech against the third ranked North Carolina State Wolfpack, who defeated the Jackets 84-75 on New Year’s Eve in Atlanta. A tight contest most of the way, the first quarter was close until the Wolfpack opened up a six point lead with 2:14 remaining in the quarter. Tech would rally in the second quarter to tie it twice within a minute and a half stretch on a Fletcher three and a jumper from Cubaj. Fletcher would assist Cubaj on the next basket of the game that gave Tech a lead they would hold the entire third quarter and until 2:30 remaining in the fourth quarter.

Led by junior center Elissa Cunane, who scored the last seven points of the game, the Wolfpack would stave off Tech’s attempts to regain their lead. As the clock expired, the scoreboard read NC State 66, Tech 61, which sent the Wolfpack to the ACC Championship against the fifth ranked Louisville Cardinals.

The Wolfpack won the ACC Tournament in a tight contest with a 68-66 victory over the Cardinals. Junior Lotta-Maj Lahtinen and Cubaj led Tech with 17 points each, with Fletcher contributing 10 of her own. This was not enough to outdo four of the five Wolfpack starters scoring double digits.

Fortner’s team now sits in waiting for the next few days to see where they will fall in the NCAA women’s tournament bracket. Like the men’s tournament, which will be played in a controlled environment around Indianapolis, the women’s tournament will be set up around San Antonio with the Final Four on April 2 and the National Championship on April 4 in the Alamodome. The Jackets are projected by ESPN to be a six seed in the RiverWalk Region, which would pit them against the likes of UCLA, Maryland, Michigan, Arkansas, and SEC champions Texas A&M. The current 1 seeds in the Women’s bracket look to be UConn, South Carolina, Stanford, and Texas A&M.

The Jackets have struggled with NC State and Louisville, who are both expected to be 2 seeds, so it’s hard to say exactly how far this team will go, but it will be determined by their defense rather than their offense.

Tech finished the season fourth in the ACC in overall defense, allowing their opponents an average of 61.8 points per game and were 11th in overall offense at 66.1 points per game. However, with ACC Coach of the Year Nell Fortner at the helm, the Jackets might make a deeper run in the bracket than the experts are currently predicting.