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Georgia Tech Controls Boards, Tops West Virginia in NCAA Women’s Tournament

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SAN ANTONIO, TX - MARCH 23: GEORGIA TECH VS WEST VIRGINIA during the Division I Women’s Basketball Tournament held at UTSA Convocation Center on March 23, 2021 in San Antonio, TX. (Photo by Scott Wachter/NCAA Photos)

West Virginia’s women’s basketball team will have to wait another year to end its Sweet Sixteen drought, a stage of the NCAA tournament the Mountaineers haven’t been on since 1992.

Their season is over, and it came to halt rather abruptly.

Against fifth-seeded Georgia Tech, the No. 4 Mountaineers were outmatched in the paint and on the glass. Simply put: they didn’t have an answer for Italian forward Lorela Cubaj nor Finnish guard Lotta-Maj Lahtinen.

The international Yellow Jackets led Georgia Tech to an upset win over the Mountaineers, besting them 73-56 in the second round of the NCAA tournament Tuesday evening at the UTSA Convocation Center. West Virginia is heading home, while Georgia Tech is bound for the tournament’s second weekend for the first time since 2012.

“Needless to say, a terrible game on our part. Give Georgia Tech all the credit,” West Virginia coach Mike Carey said. “We didn’t play as a team… We didn’t execute, and that’s what caught up to us. That’s what happened.

“I saw this coming. I really did. We tried to correct it; we just didn’t get it corrected.”

Start to finish, the Yellow Jackets (17-8; 12-6 ACC) were the more aggressive team. Despite WVU (22-7; 13-5 Big 12) building a nine-point lead in the first quarter, Georgia Tech never gave up or folded. They cut that deficit to two points by the end of the first period, then led by four at halftime. Then the Yellow Jackets broke off a 13-5 run to start the third quarter, putting a 12-point cushion between themselves and the Mountaineers.

With 90 seconds to play and leading by 18 points, Cubaj was still battling, drawing a charge on WVU’s Kirsten Deans.

“We couldn’t find that second, third and fourth gear tonight,” Deans said. “So, we definitely got winded.”

Cubaj, the ACC’s Co-Defensive Player of the Year, finished the game with 21 points, 12 rebounds and a block in 39 minutes of play. She had a lot to do with the Yellow Jackets winning the rebounding battle 36-22, and outscoring WVU on second-chance buckets 16-5.

“When we did get them to take a tough shot, it was an offensive rebound and it was a reset,” Carey said. “I just think our guards kept getting beat down in the lane, which freed (Cubaj) up. Our posts had to help a lot, and when we had to help a lot, our rotation wasn’t good and they were able to get some easy shots and some easy put-backs.”

Georgia Tech head coach Nell Fortner added: “(Cubaj) is incredibly important on the boards because she’s a phenomenal rebounder. She has a nose for the ball and cleans them up pretty good. She cleans things up for us, a lot, roaming that paint. She’s got really good instincts for helping when things break down defensively. And so, she anchors us on that defensive end, no doubt about it.”

After not hitting a three-pointer in two straight games, Georgia Tech also got an important boost from Lahtinen, who shot 4-of-9 from deep and tallied 22 points, four rebounds and two assists. She carried Georgia Tech in the first half, scoring 17 points across the first two periods.

Aside from controlling the paint, the other thing Georgia Tech did incredibly well was frustrate and bottle up the Mountaineers’ top scorer, Kysre Gondrezick. The 5-foot-9 fifth-year senior finished with just three points, her lowest total of the season. Gondrezick went just 1-of-6 from the floor and didn’t attempt a shot in the second half. She also had two rebounds, three assists and two turnovers.

Because of an NCAA COVID-era ruling that gives all athletes this academic year a free season of eligibility, Gondrezick could return to West Virginia for an extra season if she wanted to. Whether she will or not is unclear. Tuesday’s loss very well could’ve been her last game in a blue-and-gold uniform.

“Well, (Georgia Tech) keyed on (Gondrezick) the whole game, but players got to make plays. Players need to come off picks and all that,” Carey said. “We didn’t have good ball movement. It was everybody’s fault.”

Leading West Virginia on the stat sheet was Esmery Martinez, who totaled 13 points, nine rebounds, a block and a steal. Deans had 11 points and five assists, while Karli Niblack had 12 points, six rebounds and three blocks.

In all, West Virginia shot 44% from the floor, 27% from three-point range and had 15 turnovers.

“I mean, they were getting stops and they were scoring. And we weren’t scoring and getting stops. It was frustrating,” Deans said. “I thought we showed some heart, but not the heart that we had all year. So, that was a little disappointing… Georgia Tech is a good team, but they’re not 20 points better than us. They just played harder than us.”

While the loss will sting for a while for the Mountaineers, the good news is that they should be in a position to make a postseason run again next year. Gondrezick and Blessing Ejiofor are the only seniors on the roster, so All-Big 12 talents like Martinez, Deans and Niblack will return, and guard Madisen Smith should be fully healthy.

Additionally, Carey is bringing in a pair of ESPN Top 100 recruits in Ohio guard Emma Shumate and Virginia guard Messiah Hunter. And, with the NCAA’s eligibility ruling this year, the transfer market should be a deep one.

“It’s difficult right now. We need to take a couple of days and get refocused for next year,” Carey said. “We do have some good recruits coming in. We got a nucleus coming back. But you know, I just think next year, we got to have more discipline.”

Deans said in her parting shot: “We’ll be back. We’ll be back next year. And we’re going to do some things.”

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