Cubaj, Lahtinen lead Jackets to Sweet Sixteen

Lotta-Maj Lahtinen (31) and Kierra Fletcher (41) celebrate with Lorela Cubaj during their second round victory over West Virginia on March 23. All three scored in double figures during Tech’s 17-point win. // Photo courtesy of GTAA

The NCAA Women’s Basketball Championship tipped off Sunday, March 21 with the nation’s top 64 teams battling for the crown. 5-seed Tech faced 12-seed Stephen F. Austin in their first round matchup on the opening day. The Lady Jacks scored well early and pulled away in the first half thanks to poor shooting from Tech. The Jackets only broke ten points in the first quarter on a buzzer-beating three-pointer by Kierra Fletcher.

Tech continued to struggle offensively in the second quarter, not scoring a single point for over five minutes in the frame. When Lorela Cubaj hit her head on the floor during a tie-up, the Jackets were already trailing by double figures, and after a second quarter in which Tech only mustered seven points, Stephen F. Austin held a 17-point lead at the half.

Cubaj would return fairly quickly, missing four minutes of game time after being helped to her feet in the second. The play was called a jump ball and turned out to not be a serious injury to Cubaj, but concern was visible on the faces of players and coaches as she was slowly helped to her feet and walked to the trainers table.

Tech came out of halftime with a purpose, holding the Lady Jacks to only five points in the third quarter and outscoring them by 14 to cut the deficit to just three entering the final frame. Stephen F. Austin stretched the lead slightly during the fourth quarter, but the Jackets drew closer until Anaya Boyd’s pair of free throws tied the game at 48 with just over a minute left in regulation. Neither team would score in the final minute, and the game went to overtime.

Tech struck first in overtime, taking its first lead since the first quarter on a pair of Cubaj free throws, and would increase the lead to as many as five. Lotta-Maj Lahtinen hit a jumper to make the score 54-49 with under two minutes left, and Stephen F. Austin only managed three more points before the final buzzer.

The Lady Jacks had an opportunity to tie with seconds remaining on the clock, but missed two shots in close before hitting a layup that was waved off for being released after the buzzer. Tech escaped with the 54-52 win, moving on to face West Virginia in the second round, who beat Lehigh in the first round.

Cubaj returned from injury to tie for the team lead in points and pace the Jackets in rebounds as she dropped 14 and 10. Lahtinen and Fletcher each scored in double figures as well, and Tech survived despite only shooting 34 percent on the back of Lahtinen’s four steals and Cubaj’s four blocks.

Tuesday morning before Tech’s second round matchup with West Virginia, head coach Nell Fortner released a statement condemning the NCAA’s unequal treatment of men’s and women’s players. Her full statement can be found on her Twitter, and the tweet has amassed over seven thousand likes and two thousand retweets at time of writing.

The West Virginia game began with three straight Tech turnovers, but they ended the first quarter only down by two after Cubaj hit a buzzer beating layup to finish the frame. A strong offensive second quarter gave Tech a four-point lead going into the half. A large rebound margin in the Jackets’ favor limited the Mountaineers’ second chances and gave Tech a possession advantage throughout the first half.

Tech was dominant out of the half. A 22-9 third quarter gave them a 17-point lead entering the final frame, and they would hold that lead when the clock ran out, sending them to the Sweet Sixteen for the first time since 2012. Nell Fortner’s squad blew out a strong West Virginia squad and had one of their most complete performances of the season.

Tech ended the game with a plus-12 rebound margin and 52/43/69 shooting splits, totaling 73 points in the win. Their defense was strong as always, as they recorded four blocks and seven steals while holding West Virginia to 44/27 shooting splits from the field. Tech’s defense has been elite all season, but scoring well against a strong team bodes well for the rest of the tournament as they look to compete at both ends of the floor.

Lahtinen and Cubaj led the Jackets in scoring with 22 and 21 respectively while Fletcher added 14 of her own. Cubaj recorded a double-double with 12 rebounds and Fletcher led the team in assists with four. Lahtinen grabbed three steals, bringing her tournament total to seven. Tech moves on to face South Carolina on March 27 or 28. South Carolina beat Mercer and Oregon State in the first two rounds, and is one of the tournament’s four one-seeded teams.