Jackets beat Panthers in first round, falls to Duke

Sophomore forward Inés Noguero drives towards the basket and into the paint against the Blue Devils defense. // Photo courtesy of GTAA

After a solid season, the No. 10 Jackets faced off against the No. 15 University of Pittsburgh Panthers in the first round of the Atlantic Coastal Conference (ACC) women’s basketball tournament. Neither team held a clear advantage, but Tech had a great chance to avoid the first-round defeat. 

The first quarter opened with a clean jumper from junior forward Kayla Blackshear, marking the start of a tug-of-war between the two teams. The back-and-forth trend continued throughout the quarter. By the end of the first, Tech held a one-point lead in a tight affair. They dominated  in the paint, scoring 14
points to Pittsburgh’s six. 

Within three minutes of the second quarter, Tech  went on an 8-0 run fueled by fifth-year guard Sydney Johnson. Pittsburgh slowly chipped away at the lead throughout the quarter. Heading into the final minutes, the score was again just one point apart. Sophomore guard Tonie Morgan then pulled off an athletic save that led to an assist from Johnson to fifth-year Aixa Wone Aranaz for a wide-open three-pointer that she promptly buried . Two successful free throws by Morgan ended the second quarter, with the Jackets leading by six at halftime. Shooting 50% to Pittsburgh’s 33.33% from the field, Tech looked firmly in control of the game. 

The third quarter saw a series of back-and-forth scoring plays where neither team took more than a three-point advantage. A dismal overall third-quarter shooting performance of 2 of 13 and only 1 of 6 from three-point range by Tech kept Pittsburgh in the game. Once again, the Jackets  played much of their game in the paint, leading in the points in the paint category 12-8. A fastbreak layup by Morgan gave new life to an offensive explosion in the fourth quarter. In a blink of an eye, Tech led by double digits with a minute left. 

A series of successful free throws by Morgan and Blackshear sealed a 73-60 win highlighted by strong finishes in the paint and  stellar performance down the stretch from the free throw line. Next up, the No. 7 Duke Blue Devils presented a formidable challenge. The Blue Devils previously defeated the Jackets by nearly 40 points on Jan. 14 and 30 points in last year’s tournament. Despite the odds, Tech  still had a chance to pull off the upset. The game started with an early exchange of solid layups and jumpers from Blackshear, sophomore guard Kara Dunn and Morgan. However, with three minutes left in the first quarter, Duke embarked on a nine-point run, leaving Tech scoreless. Duke’s standout freshman and junior guards, Oluchi Okananwa and Reigan Richardson, dominated the first quarter with a series of three-pointers and jumpers, setting a challenging pace for Tech.

Six minutes into the second quarter, Tech managed to erase the deficit and tie the game at 20. Despite this effort, Duke’s offense proved too much, ending the second quarter with a significant 12-point lead. The scoring spree included a 17-point run, highlighted by Duke sophomore guard Ashlon Jackson. At halftime, the Jackets nearly matched Duke in points in the paint and second-chance points but lagged in three-point percentage by nearly 10% and in bench points, 8-4. 

In what started as a David versus Goliath story, Tech could not take down the giant.A clean assist from Morgan to Dunn for a three-pointer was quickly nullified by six consecutive points from Duke’s senior center Kennedy Brown. The momentum shifted decisively. Tech, usually strong in the paint, was outscored by Duke 16-4 in that area during the third quarter. The Jackets got no relief in the fourth as Duke dominated down the stretch to clinch a 12-point victory over Tech, ending the Jackets’ ACC Tournament run. 

The lingering issue with three-point shooting, evident in Tech’s win against the Panthers in round one, was highlighted again as the Jackets only converted 25% of their three-point attempts throughout the game. Struggling in the paint, Tech found they could not rely on their shooting in order to generate consistent offense. 

Despite the disappointing loss, the playoff performances of Morgan, Dunn and Blackshear were commendable. While there is a slim chance that the Jackets get an invite to the Women’s National Invitational Tournament (WNIT), this is likely the end of the season for the Jackets. 

It also marks the conclusion of the graduating seniors’ final game as the program will be without Caitlyn Wilson, Anisa Clark, Aixa Wone Aranaz, Avyonce Carter and Sydney Johnson for next year. 

Head coach Nell Fortner and the rest of the team now look forward to returning stronger for the 2024-25 season and making a deeper run in the ACC post-season — with eyes on a NCAA tournament berth.