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#TGW: Tough Stuff

#TGW: Tough Stuff
Fourth-quarter explosion keys Yellow Jackets’ double-digit comeback win over No. 23 Miami
By Jon Cooper

Call it “40 Minutes of Nell.”

Call it “Tough as Nells.”

Call it “Canes not able.”

Call it whatever you like.

Georgia Tech women’s basketball head coach Nell Fortner will simply — and gladly — call Thursday night at McCamish Pavilion a win.

The Jackets (11-2, 2-0 ACC) used a 30-12 fourth quarter to knock off No. 23 Miami (9-4, 1-1), 61-54, overcoming an 11-point deficit after three and completing a comeback in which they trailed by as many as 16 and didn’t lead until the 6:55 mark of the final stanza.

“Miami came out and just punched us in the mouth with their speed and quickness, with their attack. They were playing at a pace that we weren’t ready to match,” said Fortner. “We challenged the team at the half that they had to match that and go beyond to come out in the third quarter and I thought we did that. This team is doing a good job of responding to the coaching and the information and working hard on the floor to translate it. So I’m really proud of the effort and this win. It took us to halftime to wake up but we finally woke up.”

The Jackets shot just 2-for-12 in the first quarter and trailed 23-9 after 10 minutes.

“For whatever reason, we tend to struggle at times on the offensive end,” said Fortner. “It is what it is but thank God we can play defense. So we know how to defend and keep a team in the neighborhood of some points that we can hopefully score a little bit more than.”

The defense kept things close and despite the Jackets scoring 11 points in both the second and third quarters, they actually outscored Miami in both stanzas (11-9 in the second, 11-10 in the third). That kept them in the game despite leading scorer Francesca Pan enduring a frustrating night in which she scored a season-low six points — after her first basket, a jumper with 2:00 left in the half, she actually ran back, shrugging shoulders as if to say, “FINALLY!”

Offensively, the void was filled by hard-nosed guard Lotta-Maj Lahtinen (15 points, five rebounds — several more deflections — three assists and four steals), microwave-esque sixth woman Jasmine Carson (15 points, two assists, two steals, both of Tech’s three-point field goals), point guard Kierra Fletcher (8 points, 10 rebounds, two assists and a steal) and center Lorela Cubaj, who had a 10-point/10-rebound double-double, her fourth of the season.

The fight and the ability to find other sources of offense didn’t surprise Carson. She insisted that the team never flinched, be it looking up at a 23-7 deficit with 40 seconds left in the first or 42-31 deficit after three.

“This team is resilient. We never give up,” said Carson, whose first three-pointer of two on the night gave the Jackets their first basket with 4:07 elapsed. “Our coaching staff pushes us every single day in practice to never give up no matter what the scoreboard looks like. The second half we came out and all we focused on was defense and our offense would take care of itself. We knocked down shots, we got steals and our defense turned into our offense.”

It just took a while to get there. Miami jumped out early, as forward Beatrice Mompremier and the Canes held court in the lane before the Jackets finally adapted, rotating and helping out more aggressively to double-team.

“We looked for it early. We were supposed to do that, but we weren’t doing it,’” said Fortner, who even tried pulling starters Francesca Pan and Lorela Cubaj, and Carson and replacing them with forwards Daijah Jefferson and Anne Francoise Diouf, and guard Sarah Bates with 3:07 left, down 18-4. “It was like, ‘What is going on?’ All of a sudden, all that work we did just flew out the window. The pace of the game to start with surprised us — how quick they were, how fast they got the ball down the floor, how quick they went in transition — it kind of got us back on our heels. I’m not sure that we were expecting that kind of pace coming at us. They’re strong athletes. So we had to catch our second wind and get back on the horse.”

They not only got back on the horse, but broke it in in what is becoming their signature style.

Georgia Tech outscored Miami 28-8 in the paint over the final 30 minutes after being outscored 8-0 in the paint in the first quarter. After allowing the U to shoot 9-of-15 (.600) in the first 10 minutes, the Jackets defense did a U-turn. They stymied Miami, which made 10 field goals the rest of the game in 37 attempts, a .270 percentage.

The Jackets pecked at the lead but couldn’t make significant headway. They cut only one point off the 32-20 halftime deficit in the third, after Miami went on a quarter-closing 8-2 run.

But this team didn’t get down on itself. Instead it got down to business over the final 10 minutes.

They opened the stanza on an 11-0 run, holding Miami to 0-3 shooting and forcing a pair of turnovers. Carson’s second three tied the game.

After Mompremier missed the second of two free throws, the Jackets turned the rebound into a Lahtinen fastbreak layup. Carson, who broke the press in getting the ball ahead to Lahtinen, then made a steal off the inbounds pass and fed Lahtinen in the lane for a short jumper and a 46-43 lead.

“I think the steal to get my teammate open, the steal to get Lotta-Maj a shot, was the most important bucket of the night,” said Carson, who called the steal more personally satisfying than the game-tying three moments earlier.

“That’s ‘Jazz’ growing up because a three feels good, there’s no doubt about it, but a steal feels really good in the heat of the battle,” said Fortner, adding with a laugh, “what she’s probably saying is, ‘My coaches are really going to be happy about that steal because this is something they need from me, they’ve been asking me to do it.’ So that was a big play for Jazz and for us.”

Carson, who went 7-for-8 from the line — she came in 3-for-6 on the season — hit one of two free throws off a steal, then guard Kierra Fletcher scored off a theft of her own. The 18-1 run put the Jackets up 49-43 with 4:59 left.

The Canes pulled within two with 3:47 left, but the Jackets went on an 8-0 run via a Carson layup off an aggressive drive to the basket, a Lahtinen driving layup, and a layup and short jumper by Cubaj, to push the lead back up to 10.

The Canes got within three again with 1:01 left but Fletcher’s jumper put the game on ice.

The Jackets know they have a big job straight ahead, as they open ACC road play Sunday at Wake Forest and then visit Florida State next Thursday.

“It’s going to be a challenge to see how we respond to being away, but I think our mentality doesn’t change if we’re at home or away,” said Carson. “We’re still going to turn it up on defense and our offense will take care of itself.”

“We should have some confidence going on the road,” said Fortner. “Wake Forest is a good team. They came really close to beating Miami down in Miami (Miami held on, 59-56 on Dec. 29). So I’m sure they’re chomping at the opportunity to get a hold of us since we just beat Miami. But every game in the ACC — every game in any conference — is tough. I don’t care if you play them at home or on the road. You have to be prepared and ready to roll.”

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