GREENSBORO — It was a war of attrition.
Georgia Tech lost it’s best player, All-ACC forward Lorela Cubaj, when she suffered a significant cut on her chin and a possible concussion after taking a fall early in the second quarter.
Wake Forest, meanwhile, played the entire game without forward Christina Morra — who posted a double-double in Wednesday’s opening round win against Virginia — with what was termed a “non-COVID illness.” The Deacons were also without the ACC’s leading scorer, guard Jewel Spear, for part of the first half because of a foot injury that severely limited her effectiveness.
That combination proved too much for the 11th-seeded Deacons to overcome in an ugly 45-44 loss to the fifth-seeded Yellow Jackets in the second round of the ACC Women’s Basketball Tournament at Greensboro Coliseum.
“It was tough when we found out we weren’t going to have Christina. She’s been playing so well, been a double-double machine for us, so that was definitely tough to hear,” said forward Olivia Summiel, herself a member of Wake’s walking wounded who played the game with a fractured left wrist. “But I was definitely confident in my teammates coming off the bench.
“I thought we handled ourselves. Obviously it’s tough when you lose your starting five player, but they also lost their starting five player, so it’s kind of a next-man-up mentality. We talked about that in the locker room. Tough one, but I thought we responded.”
Morra’s absence and Spear’s difficulties were noticeable early, as the Deacons (15-16) struggled to score against the ACC’s best defensive team. They were only able to manage nine points on 4-of-25 shooting through the first 15 minutes and finished the half with just 13.
Wake’s saving grace was that the Yellow Jackets (21-9) weren’t faring much better on the offensive end even before Cubaj went out. And they only got worse after her injury.
Tech was 1 of 9 from beyond the 3-point arc and 8 of 23 overall in the first half and left the door open for a Deacons comeback by sputtering to just 20 points of its own.
Spear was 3 of 16 overall and 1 of 11 from 3-point range in 26 painful minutes, but she still managed to find a way to will her team back to the brink of an improbable upset. She scored 10 of her 11 points in the second half and with the help of Summiel and Malaya Cowles -/ who had eight points apiece — Wake managed to tie the game at 31 with 7:07 remaining,
“I really thought when we were able to tie it up and even get close, I was like, we’re going to do this,” Deacons coach Jen Hoover said. “I thought we tried and we got some good looks even in the late game execution, and the ball just didn’t bounce our way tonight.”
Cowles had a chance to put her team ahead, but missed the and-one free throw. It was the first of four missed opportunities to take the lead. The last of them was the most frustrating.
With 2½ minutes remaining and Tech leading 38-37, Cowles actually put the ball through the basket. But because it happened a split second after the 30-second clock buzzer sounded, it didn’t count.
The Yellow Jackets scored on the next possession, then a minute later, got a 3-point dagger from Lotta-Maj Lahtinen that effectively put the game away.
Lahtinen finished with 11 points. Eylia Love led the Yellow Jackets, who will meet Notre Dame in Friday’s tournament quarterfinals, with 16 points.
“It’s a stage where you expect your upperclassmen to step up and do that, and she didn’t want to go home,” Hoover said of Lahtinen’s big shot. “They had a fallen teammate, too. Give her a lot of credit for hitting that.
“I thought we hit some big shots along the way too. Our zone (defense), we were active in it, but I thought we gave up a few too many open looks. It’s something we kind of came in thinking we were going to have to do to save our legs a little bit.”