By Matt Winkeljohn | The Good Word
It took a while for Lorela Cubaj to start connecting Sunday, but that was just fine with the Georgia Tech women’s basketball coach, MaChelle Joseph.
The sophomore forward scored eight of her 13 points in Tech’s 20-point fourth quarter as the Yellow Jackets knocked off No. 14 Georgia with a 63-53 win in McCamish Pavilion.
So what if she bopped her coach in the lip accidentally while hopping around in the post-game celebration? There can’t be a better way to start Georgia week than by beating Georgia to move the Jackets to 6-0 against the Bulldogs in fall sports.
“I can’t even tell you who did what statistically. I just know that we found a way . . .,” Joseph said after the Jackets moved to 3-1. “Any time you can beat Georgia in anything, it’s a great win for our program.”
Tech teams this fall have beaten Georgia teams twice in men’s cross country (in the Bulldog Invitational and the NCAA South Regional), twice in women’s cross country (in the Bulldog Invitational and the NCAA South Regional), in volleyball and in women’s basketball.
That’s a nice start.
Cubaj on the other hand, made 1-of-8 shots in the first half against Georgia (2-2).
The Jackets moved to a 31-23 halftime lead, though, by pounding the Bulldogs on the offensive glass, and by harassing Georgia forward Caliya Robinson, who earned second team all-SEC honors last season.
Cubaj and freshman forward Elizabeth Dixon had everything to do with that. They were all over Robinson, who went scoreless on two shots in the first half.
Although she did grab nine rebounds, the Jackets were following the plan, which included going at Robinson while on offense.
“We said we had to take away transition baskets from her and she didn’t want the physicality of our players,” Joseph said. “I challenged our post players to be very physical with her; get inside and try to post her up and try to make her play a post-up game rather than a face-up game.”
Tech didn’t shoot well Sunday, but the Jackets kept shooting and rebounding, and turning over the Bulldogs.
Dixon turned in her second straight double-double with 10 points and 11 rebounds and the Jackets outrebounded the Bulldogs 41-35, including a 15-8 edge in offensive rebounds, where Dixon had five. Tech also banked 12 steals while Georgia turned the ball over 24 times to Tech’s 15.
That all added up to the Jackets taking 12 more shots than the Bulldogs, helping ease through a 31.3 percent shooting afternoon.
Cubaj wasn’t shooting early in the fourth quarter. She was on the bench as Georgia drew within 43-41 on a layup by Jenna Staiti with 9:44 left, and she was getting a pep talk.
“You know Cubaj in the first half was struggling, and I really challenged her down the stretch in the fourth quarter and told her it’s time; it’s now or never,” Joseph said.
She re-entered the game for the final 8:58, and pretty much took over.
The 6-foot-4 native of Terni, Italy, grabbed three defensive rebounds, blocked three shots and hit all three of her shots.
On back-to-back possessions in the middle of the period, she powered through multiple defenders to make tough baskets and draw fouls. Each time, she made her free throw to give Tech a 50-43 lead with 4:36 left and then a 53-44 lead at the 4:03 mark.
“I needed to step up for my team, and also this game is so important for us. All of us needed a presence in the paint so I just kept shooting,” Cubaj explained. “I know some of my shots weren’t the best, but I need to keep my confidence.”
Those free throws were sure nice. All of them. Tech made 18-of-22 in the game against Georgia’s 3-of-11.
“I really felt like she stepped up and took over the game in the fourth quarter and made a couple and-one plays and was able to get us some momentum on the offensive end,” Joseph said of Cubaj.
“We’ve done a good job of playing smarter basketball than we played last year,” Joseph said. “We had more fouls than practically anyone in the country last year. We made our free throws, which was a huge difference today.”
Dixon and Cubaj had plenty of help.
Kierra Fletcher had 10 points and four steals, Elizabeth Balogun scored 10 points, and Francesca Pan added nine with seven rebounds and four steals in a well-balanced effort.
Cubaj’s last shot, a bunny with 2:24 to go, expanded Tech’s lead to 57-45 and may have been the capper.
No wonder she was so happy after the game. She’s sorry about coach’s busted lip, but said, “All of us were so excited, especially because it’s our rival since a long time ago. I love the feeling. I feel like completely numb.”
Coach knows that feeling.