West Virginia’s women’s basketball team has a lot to play for on Tuesday against. Georgia Tech.
At stake for the No. 4 Mountaineers in their match-up with the No. 5 Yellow Jackets in the NCAA tournament is an elusive berth to the Sweet 16. WVU has been to 11 NCAA tournaments under head coach Mike Carey, but they’ve never advanced past the second round. A victory over Georgia Tech would push them into the tournament’s second weekend for the first time since 1992, and just the second time in school history.
“You always play better in the second game,” Carey said. “So, I look for us to come out and have a great game against Georgia Tech.”
But beating Georgia Tech won’t be a walk in the park. The Yellow Jackets are 16-8 this season and went 12-6 in a tough year for the ACC. The conference had eight teams make the NCAA tournament field, the most of any single conference this season. The Yellow Jackets went 5-6 against tournament-bound teams, a mark that includes a non-conference loss to third-seeded Georgia in overtime and two losses to top seeded N.C. State.
Coached by Nell Fortner in her second season at the helm, the Yellow Jackets are defensively-sound team, ranked 29th by HerHoopStats in defensive rating with an 83.8 mark. Georgia Tech likes to play out of the half-court and slow the game down. They’re one of the slowest teams in the country, averaging just 67.2 possessions per-40 minutes, a mark that is 301st in the nation in pace. To compare, Baylor ranks 28th in pace with 74.9 possessions per-40 minutes and WVU is 108th with 72.3.
“They’ll play man (defense). They’ll press you, they’ll trap, they’ll play zone,” Carey said of Georgia Tech. “They got a great five player in the post. They got some shooters around (her), some athletes. Then they have another guard that will drive you and shoot the three. They have a lot of talent.”
The post player Carey spoke of is Lorela Cubaj, who was named Co-Defensive Player of the Year by the ACC’s head coaches. She was also voted to First Team All-ACC.
A 6-foot-4 forward from Terni, Italy, Cubaj led the Yellow Jackets in their first-round overtime win over No. 12 Stephen F. Austin with 14 points, 10 rebounds, four assists and four blocks. She’s averaging 12.1 points, 11.7 rebounds and three assists per-game this season while shooting 42.9% from the floor. Cubaj led the ACC in rebounding and ranks 12th in the nation with a defensive rebounding rate of 30.2%. Simply put: she’s gifted on the boards, and will give Esmery Martinez a real battle on the glass.
“You know, Esmery, again had a double-double when really, you know, she just never got in rhythm,” Carey said of Martinez’s performance vs. Lehigh. “But we need everybody in-rhythm for Georgia Tech.”
Both Georgia Tech and West Virginia survived first-games against tough mid-major teams. While the Yellow Jackets needed overtime to beat Stephen F. Austin, WVU handily topped Lehigh, but the game was far from being a no-contest. The Mountain Hawks had the game tied late in the second quarter and fought West Virginia all the way to the end.
“The fact that we were able to buckle up, buckle down and lock in on defense, that’s something that we need to carry forward with our momentum moving forward in the tournament,” said WVU senior Kysre Gondrezick, who had 26 points in the win. “You got to be able to play defense inside and out.”
While it’s been 21 years since West Virginia has been to the Sweet 16, it’s been a while for Georgia Tech too. The Yellow Jackets are playing in their first NCAA tournament since 2014 and haven’t won two games in the tournament since 2012. They feel like they have something to prove too.
“It is really important for us. We just want to survive and advance,” Cubaj said. “We just want to get as far as we can and prove that we belong here.”
Said Fortner: “Everybody’s come here with some fresh legs and big dreams and goals, and a hunger to win.”
Everything you need to know
When: 5:30 p.m. EST
Where: UTSA Convocation Center in San Antonio, Texas.
Watch: Roy Philpott and Brooke Weisbrod will have the call for ESPNU.
Last meeting: West Virginia is 2-0 all-time against Georgia Tech, last beating the Yellow Jackets 75-61 at the 2003 Paradise Jam in the Virgin Islands.
Injuries: Expect Georgia Tech’s lineup from its game vs. Stephen F. Austin to be healthy. For West Virginia, Madisen Smith will likely remain out with a leg injury. Additionally, Carey said that Kari Niblack “wasn’t feeling good” during the Mountaineers win over Lehigh. Carey said it has “nothing to do with COVID,” but he wasn’t sure Sunday night if she would be able to play vs. Georgia Tech. Against Lehigh, the junior forward from Leesburg, Florida played 26 minutes and had nine points, two rebounds and two blocks.
Georgia Tech stat blast: After a streak of nine consecutive games with at least one made three-pointer, Lotta-Maj Lahtinen hasn’t connected on a shot from behind the arc in either of her last two games, including a 0-of-7 performance from deep against Stephen F. Austin. She was third in the ACC with field goals made this season with 130.
West Virginia stat blast: Among players still active in the NCAA tournament, Esmery Martinez is fourth in double-doubles this season with 15. She trails only South Carolina’s Aliyah Boston, Charli Collier of Texas, and Natasha Mack of Oklahoma State. Martinez is averaging 13.6 points and 11.6 rebounds per-game this season.
Also: WVU’s Jasmine Carson played for Georgia Tech last season before transferring to Morgantown this past offseason. As a sophomore for the Yellow Jackets, Carson averaged 9.7 points per-game and shot 33.8% from three-point range. She was their fourth leading scorer and best three-point shooter, but her playing time dwindled near the end of last season as she played 17 minutes or less in each of the Yellow Jackets’ final seven games. The native of Memphis, Tennessee is playing 14.5 minutes per-game for Carey’s side this season, averaging 4.5 points and 1.6 rebounds per-game while shooting 37% from three.