Lorela Cubaj took a scary fall and her Georgia Tech team almost did too but both recovered to play another day in the women’s NCAA Tournament.
Cubaj scored 14 points, including the go-ahead free throws in overtime, and the fifth-seeded Yellow Jackets came back from a 17-point halftime deficit to turn back 12-seed Stephen F. Austin 54-52 on Sunday.
The Yellow Jackets’ first opening-round victory since 2012 — and the fourth-largest comeback in tournament history — sends them to a Tuesday matchup against fourth-seeded West Virginia, a 77-53 winner over No. 13-seed Lehigh in the Hemisfair Region.
Cubaj, of Italy, left the the game in the second quarter after taking a fall while going for a rebound. She appeared to hit the back of her head on the court and after several minutes was able to leave with assistance. She came back four minutes later to finish the half with SFA leading 34-17 — the lowest-scoring half of the season for Georgia Tech (16-8).
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“The major problem for us in the first two quarters is we were not playing as together,” Cubaj said. “We were talking about how we needed to stick together. I feel like it was also like the nerves. It is our first NCAA Tournament game, so we just kind of had to get rid of those.”
The Ladyjacks shot 45% in the first half but plummeted to 15% on 4-of-26 shooting in the second half.
“Definitely the press I thought was the difference-maker for us,” said Nell Fortner, in her second year as Tech’s head coach. “Creating some turnovers and really pressuring them into some shots they might not have taken otherwise.
“I’m so proud of our kids for how hard we fought back being 17 down. Just really did a good job of fighting our way back, believing and just never giving up.”
After Cubaj’s overtime free throws gave Georgia Tech its first lead since 6-4, Anaya Boyd and Lotta-May Lahtinen sandwiched baskets around an SFA free throw for a five-point lead with 1:36 remaining. SFA freshman Avery Brittingham converted a three-point play with 47 seconds left and had a chance to tie the game at the end but missed twice under the basket before her third try went in after the buzzer.
Cubaj grabbed 10 rebounds and blocked four shots for Georgia Tech. Lahtinen also scored 14 points and Kierra Fletcher added 11 points and nine rebounds.
After a sputtering first half, a different Tech team emerged in the third quarter, shooting 54% and outscoring SFA 19-5 and closing within 39-36 entering the final period on Loyal McQueen’s 3-pointer at the buzzer. A 10-2 Georgia Tech run created a 48-all tie with 1:12 remaining in regulation. The teams exchanged misses before SFA’s Stephanie Visscher was unable to convert a left-handed scoop shot at the buzzer.
Brittingham scored 16 points with 13 rebounds for the Ladyjacks (24-3), who had a 19-game win streak snapped. Visscher added 14 points and 10 rebounds.
“Time will heal what they’re going through right now but that’s not easy to tell them and they haven’t been at this point before and … felt that disappointment right now that we didn’t close that out,” SFA coach Mark Kellogg said. “Time will heal those wounds and we’ll look back at it, we’ll get back in a couple of weeks or whenever that point is and celebrate this and give it its, you know, the day that it deserves, because this has been a remarkable.”
Stephen F. Austin: It was a heartbreaking collapse for the Ladyjacks, but they have revived a dormant but rich NCAA Tournament history with their first appearance in 15 years. This was their 17th appearance with their last win coming in 2000. The Ladyjacks have advanced to the Sweet 16 five times, the last time in 1996.
Georgia Tech: The Yellow Jackets were picked to finish ninth in the ACC but placed third, tied for the most ACC wins in program history and now find themselves headed for the second round after proving their resilience. They had lost 12 straight overtime games prior to Sunday.
TEXAS CONNECTIONS Fortner, who played at Texas, was a graduate assistant then an assistant coach at SFA from 1986-1990 when the Ladyjacks made three straight NCAA appearances. She’s one of 15 coaches all-time to take three different teams (Purdue, Auburn) to the NCAAs.