Women’s basketball ready for season

Senior guard Lotta-Maj Lahtinen dribbles around a Clemson defender in a 2021 game. Lahtinen was the Jackets’ leading scorer last season and earned the ACC’s Most Improved Player award. // Photo by Tuna Ergan Student Publications

The Tech women’s basketball team from last year’s Sweet 16 in the NCAA Tournament is largely back together for the 2021-22 season. The Jackets went 17-9 last year, and their 12-6 conference record was third in the ACC. After an overtime win over Stephen F. Austin and a blowout victory over West Virginia, Tech finally lost to South Carolina, who tops this year’s preseason rankings. All five starters were set to return for this year, though Kierra Fletcher plans to redshirt for medical reasons as announced on Wednesday.

The core of the team starts with star senior forward Lorela Cubaj, who was the 2021 ACC Co-Defensive Player of the Year. She paced the Jackets in rebounds and blocks and was second on the team in steals. Cubaj shone offensively too, finishing third on the team in points per game and assists. She averaged a double-double on the season with 12.5 points and 11.5 rebounds, and her play from last year earned her a spot on the Katrina McClain Award watch list as one of the nation’s top power forwards. While she would’ve been eligible for the WNBA draft, she decided to come back for one more season.

Senior guard Lotta-Maj Lahtinen makes up half of the backcourt duo that complements Cubaj inside. Lahtinen averaged 15 points per game, pacing the Jackets, while also leading the team in steals, assists and minutes. Lahtinen earned the ACC’s Most Improved Player award after raising her totals in nearly every statistical category.

Senior guard Kierra Fletcher was the other half of the backcourt duo and was a strong scorer and rebounder. She was second on the team in both points and rebounds per game, averaging 13 and five respectively. She is an efficient shooter from beyond the arc and at the free throw line and led starters in assist to turnover ratio. Fletcher will not be playing this season due to a medical redshirt.

Sophomore guard Loyal Mcqueen and junior center Nerea Hermosa were Tech’s other two starters and rounded out the starting five well. McQueen was the Jackets’ most efficient shooter from deep, helping to stretch the floor and allow Cubaj and Hermosa to work inside. Hermosa was an interior threat, leading the team in shooting percentage and finishing second in blocks and offensive rebounds behind Cubaj.

Senior guard Sarah Bates started 11 games and sophomore guard/forward Eylia Love was one of four players to play all 26 games for Tech, bolstering the Jackets’ lineup beyond last year’s main starters.

New to Tech for this season are freshman guard Elizabete Bulane and forward Camryn Harrison. Bulane was a four-star European prospect and a member of the Latvian U16 National Team. Harrison was a two-time all-state player in Tennessee and a top-100 recruit by multiple sites. Joining the new freshmen is grad transfer forward Digna Strautmane, a four-year starter at Syracuse. Strautmane is a good shooter, scoring at all three levels, and brings consistent rebounding and shot-altering to Tech’s lineup.

Tech opened their season with an exhibition against Clayton State, winning the game 74-53. The first game of the regular season is Tuesday, Nov 9 at Central Michigan before five games in the Southeast. Home tilts against KSU and Belmont are followed by a trip to ETSU. Two more home games against Hofstra and Auburn come before the ACC/Big10 Challenge, when the Jackets will travel to face Purdue in West Lafayette, IN.

Tech travels up to Athens for the yearly rivalry game with Georgia on Dec. 5, then faces perennial championship contender UConn at home on Dec. 9. A home game against Furman precedes the first game of ACC play, at McCamish Pavilion against Wake Forest on Dec. 19. The team takes on Boston University at home two days later before entering strictly conference play.

Tech has home-and-home series with Wake Forest, Florida State, Miami and Clemson. The Jackets will face Pitt, Duke, Syracuse, NC State and Virginia Tech on the road only and Louisville, Virginia, North Carolina, Boston College and Notre Dame at home.

The Jackets will be facing a tough slate, with NC State, Louisville and Florida State all ranked in the top 16 of the preseason AP poll. UConn is ranked narrowly behind South Carolina in the poll as well, and Belmont, Central Michigan and several ACC teams made the tournament last season, contributing to the tough schedule. However, Tech is tied for 17th in the poll and weathered a tough season last year as well. Another year with a similar core could lead to another strong season for Tech.