Women’s hoops season ends in Palo Alto

Digna Strautmane puts up a shot against Kansas in the first round of the NCAA tournament. Tech fell to the Jayhawks when the offense fell flat after the first quarter. // Photo courtesy of Darren Yamashita NCAA

The women’s basketball squad reached their second consecutive NCAA March Madness tournament as an at-large bid, slotting in as a ninth seed in the Spokane region of the bracket. Tech drew the Kansas Jayhawks for their first round game, which was played on Stanford’s campus in Palo Alto as the top seed in that region. The game was a full 15 days after their previous game in the ACC Tournament, where they lost to Notre Dame in the quarterfinals.

The ninth seed certainly was not where the Jackets expected to be the majority of the season. Until a losing skid at the end of the season, the Jackets were in the AP top 25 for weeks, ranked as high as 11th and in line to host the first two rounds of the NCAA tournament.

Kansas came into the game with a week’s time less of rest than Tech after a loss to Oklahoma in the Big 12 Tournament, but on a much better offensive streak than Tech had shown, scoring more than 70 points in their last four games. 

After Kansas won the opening tip, the Jayhawks quickly went on a 10–0 run after two buckets by Ioanna Chatzileonti, after which Tech coach Nell Fortner called timeout just three minutes into the game.

The next seven minutes the floodgates opened for Tech offensively. All five starters got at least one bucket, led by seniors Lorela Cubaj and Digna Strautmane with six points apiece. The first quarter ended on a 22-3 run for the Jackets, who were up nine after the end of ten minutes, aided by an 0–9 shooting stretch by Kansas to end the quarter. 

A Strautmane steal two minutes into the second quarter leading to a layup by the junior Nerea Hermosa swelled the lead to 10, but was the best of any lead Tech would see all game. Signs of dysfunction began showing defensively, and Cubaj threw an errant pass well over senior Sarah Bates’ head in part of a 4-for-4 shooting stretch for Kansas that brought them within one, 28–27. After Chatzileonti tied the game at 31, Holly Kersgieter made a three to end the half with Kansas up 34–31. Tech never saw a glimpse of the lead again.

Even with a turnover free quarter in the third, Kansas dominated under the basket, scoring 16 points in the paint and out-rebounding Tech 12–5. Strautmane was the lone bright spot offensively for Tech, shooting 4–4 in the quarter with eight points. Hermosa was 0–6 shooting.

By the final quarter, it was effectively garbage time for Kansas, who increased the lead to 12. Senior Lotta-Maj Lahtinen made her lone three-pointer of the game to make it a 60–49 game, but that wasn’t enough to kickstart a late rally. With three and half minutes left, both Cubaj and Lahtinen went down on the same play and had to be taken off the floor, but both returned to the sidelines before long.

“I didn’t even notice Lo go down. I was shooting a three a three and then I just stepped on someone’s foot … at that point I was just trying to win,” Lahtinen said after the game of the moment her and Cubaj went down.

Kansas finished the Institute’s 2021–2022 season with a 77–58 win. “It’s a disappointing loss. There’s no question,” said coach Fortner postgame.

“You know, we just didn’t have our best night. I think Kansas played — I think they played really well, and they did what they wanted to do, and we couldn’t stop it. We knew they were going to get paint points and they got a lot of them and we knew they were going to work hard to get to the free-throw line, and they did. It was just a tough night for us, and we wish them the best,” said Fortner.

For Bates, Strautmane, Lahtinen and Cubaj, it was their last games in a Tech uniform. Cubaj led the team in minutes played this year with 1,074. Cubaj, Lahtinen, Hermosa and sophomore Eylia Love all averaged at least 10 points per game, with Lahtinen up top with 10.9 PPG. 

Tech notably was not a stellar second quarter team, scoring at least 495 points in all other quarters, but only 394 in the second. 

Cubaj remains a Naismith finalist for Defensive Player of the Year and will almost certainly end up on a WNBA team after this year’s draft.

Of Cubaj, Strautmane and Lahtinen, Fortner said “They’ll be playing pro ball whether it’s overseas in the European league or maybe a couple of them will get an opportunity in the WNBA.”

Junior Aixa Wone Aranaz and Hermosa currently will be the seniors on next year’s team pending possible transfers. Freshman guard Elizabete Bulane and sophomore guard Avyonce Carter will certainly see many more minutes next season in elevated bench or starting roles.