#TGW: Sisu-per Girl
Sophomore guard Lotta-Maj Lahtinen brings the grit and the fight every night
By Jon Cooper
The Good Word
Coaches can teach a lot of things but they can’t teach grit. They can only try to coax it out of their players.
Georgia Tech women’s basketball head coach Nell Fortner puts a premium on grit and likes players she doesn’t have to work hard to get it out of.
“One of my favorite words is ‘grit.’ I want my players to have grit,” said Fortner, following Georgia Tech’s 87-48 rout of ETSU Sunday afternoon at McCamish Pavilion. “It’s an above-and-beyond, X-factor kind of thing in a player. When I was talking about this team after I got the job and we were starting to get to know each other and what I’m about, what my expectations are, grit was one of my big ones.”
Sophomore Lotta-Maj Lahtinen is big on grit. The Helsinki, Finland, native refers to it as “sisu.” Pronounced see’-soo,’ it translates to “persistence and determination” and dates back to her country’s formation in the early 1800s. It’s a reason Tech’s first-year coach and second-year guard have been on the same page almost from day one.
“‘Sisu’ is grit in Finnish and Lotta-Maj knew all about it,” said Fortner. “That kid has grit. She is just a fighter! She will not stop on you. She will do whatever you ask her to do. She will run through the wall for you. That’s her and I love it!”
Lahtinen has given her coach and her teammates plenty to love. The sophomore has raised her game in just about every offensive category and has become a solid second scoring option in support of senior Francesca Pan, and a bigtime perimeter threat from behind the arc with Pan and classmate Jasmine Carson.
Heading into this weekend’s Coqui Classic in San Juan, Puerto Rico against No. 11/13 Texas A&M (9-1) and Rice (5-4), Lahtinen is fourth on the team in scoring (9.9 ppg), field goals (32) and rebounding (5.1), third in three-point field goals (13) and second in three-point percentage (.371) and free throw shooting (.706). She’s been tireless, logging 29.9 minutes per game (fourth), having started all nine games.
That’s up from her freshman campaign, where she averaged 4.7 points on .333 shooting, .265 from three, with 2.2 rebounds in 20.1 minutes, making five starts.
“I think this year I got better at reading my defense and being more patient in my game, how to pass the ball better to my teammates,” she said. “Also I feel like my threes got better.
“It’s repetition and consistency,” she added. “I took a lot of shots during the summer. I tried to put 50 threes in in shoot-around. If I had a day off, I tried to put in 100 makes. Just to keep it consistent and try to shoot as much as possible.”
The extra shooting has paid off in improved scoring and three-point shooting. But those are the glamorous parts of the game.
Lahtinen’s “sisu” really shows up in the dirty work she does. She leads the team in offensive rebounding, having pulled down 23 offensive rebounds, 2.6 per game.
As remarkable is that Lahtinen starts the majority of Tech’s offensive plays behind the three-point line, running the offense.
But it’s that “sisu” and the obligation to her teammates that drives her to get in and mix it up.
“I feel like that’s just giving the effort, doing a role, doing your part,” said Lahtinen, who grabbed a career-best six offensive boards in this year’s season-opener at Houston and has grabbed at least two in seven of the Jackets’ nine games this season — she had 10 multi-rebound games all last season. “Sometimes the ball is tipped to you, sometimes it’s tipped to a teammate, but you’ve just got to be tough there and box out.”
Coming off her first season of NCAA DI basketball, Lahtinen further toughened herself and grew up over the summer on the international level, playing with the Finnish National Team in the U20 European Championships and the Napoli Summer Universidade. She was the second-youngest member of the team, at 19.
In Universidade, Lahtinen was second on the team in minutes played (21.6 per game), assists (2.5 apg) and steals (1.5 spg), and was fourth in offensive rebounds (10, one of two Finns in double-digits). In the European Championships, she helped the team to the championship game of Group B, where they fell to Bulgaria, 80-75. She turned it up offensively, averaging 14.0 points, with four double-digit-scoring games, including 25 in the semifinal win over Great Britain — shot 49.3 percent, with 6.3 rebounds, 2.0 on the offensive end, 4.7 assists and 1.5 steals in a team-high 30.9 minutes. She had nine points, five rebounds and six assists in the final game.
“(The European Championships) was great. We did great as a team. We lifted our under-20 National Team to the Division A European Championship, which for a small country is a big thing,” she said. “We had good team chemistry, everybody worked hard for the summer and I think I got better as a player. I gained responsibility during the summer, so I got better.”
Fortner liked what she saw in those games online as it confirmed her instinct about Lahtinen co-running the point.
“I was really happy she was playing the point because we needed a back-up point guard,” said Fortner. “Kierra Fletcher is not really a true point guard and Lotta-Maj is not really a true point guard. So I’ve got two two-guards splitting the point guard duties. But I thought that experience for her gave her a tremendous amount of confidence to play anywhere on the floor. I would trust her playing anywhere. So she’s grown up and she’s really a tough competitor. That experience was tremendous for her.”
Lahtinen likes sharing distribution duties with Fletcher.
“Kierra is a really hard worker. She’s a phenomenal leader, so I feel like we’re communicating really well, and playing together,” she said. “I like playing with her because she’s a team-player. I’m just learning from her and working together with her.”
Lahtinen has shown better ball-security this season, with an assist-to-turnover ratio of 2.4:1 (24 assists vs. 10 turnovers). Last year she was 1:1, finishing with 66 assists and 65 turnovers.
She also has shown she can make opponents pay if they decide to slack off on her defensively. On Dec. 8, Lahtinen torched Kennesaw State, pouring in a career-high 18 points on 7-for-14 shooting, 4-for-8 from three-point range, in a career-best 36 minutes in the 63-47 win. She put forth an all-around great effort, just missing a double-double, grabbing nine caroms (3 offensive, 6 defensive), handing out two assists and even recording a blocked shot (her second of the season, matching last year’s season total).
“It’s just going into every situation. I feel like at Kennesaw, it was just playing team play,” she said. “Sometimes the balls go in, sometimes they don’t. My shots just went in and my teammates were good at finding me with the ball.”
The Jackets find themselves facing a tough stretch to finish the calendar year, as they’ll head to San Juan to take on Texas A&M on Friday and Rice on Saturday, then come home to open the conference year on Dec. 29 against Virginia.
“It’s definitely a work trip,” said Fortner. “We play Texas A&M, which is a top-25 team, and they’ve got maybe the top offensive player in the country in Chennedy Carter. Then, the next day, we play Rice, who has a 6-9 kid (junior center Nancy Mulkey) that can create a lot of problems. So it’s two good tests for us and then come back and start conference play after Christmas, and we’re off and running. I’m looking forward to it.”
Lahtinen, her “sisu” in tow, is as well and believes the team is ready to pass any and all tests.
“I feel like we trust each other more,” she said. “I feel like the new staff has brought in good energy and good chemistry and they’re making us better every day. Going to the ACC (opener) and going into this tournament that we have next week is really important.”