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College Basketball

Some Halves You’re The Upsetter, Some Halves You’re Upset

Screenshot: ESPN

The first weekend of the women’s tournament has never been one much for big upsets. For some clue of their rarity, and therefore their unforgettable nature, know that I spent a good chunk of 1-seed Stanford’s Sunday night game against 16-seed Utah Valley—the Cardinal would win by 43—thinking of the time Stanford was upset by 16-seed Harvard 23 years ago, still the only time a top-three seed on the women’s side has lost in the first round. As per usual, no funny business this year. Only the favorites won on the first day of women’s games. Trendy upset pick FGCU could not withstand the Michigan scoring tandem of Leigha Brown and Naz Hillmon; even an 8-9 game between Oregon State and Florida State went decisively the 8-seed’s way.

But spare a thought for 12-seed Stephen F. Austin, who came mighty close to the weekend’s only upset before fate’s all-chalk bracket smote the poor Ladyjacks down. We’ll get to their incredible crumbling in a moment, but SFA played some no-nonsense basketball all season, and was probably a smart upset pick if anyone was. They entered the tournament on an 18-game win streak, finished their season 24-2, and their defensive discipline always made them one of the tournament’s more formidable lower seeds. This year, the Ladyjacks forced more turnovers and got more steals than any team in the country. True to their reputation, they turned Sunday afternoon’s first-round matchup against 5-seed Georgia Tech into an ugly, defensive slog of a game from the very beginning. Georgia Tech, a low-scoring team all year, went nearly seven minutes of the second quarter without a field goal. SFA would enter halftime up 34–17.

SFA could not have realized then that Yellow Jackets coach Nell Fortner would make the best second half adjustments—or possibly the most rousing halftime speech—of all time. SFA went from shooting 44.8 percent in the first half to shooting—oh no!—15.4 percent in the second half against Georgia Tech’s stifling press. “The press, I thought, was a difference-maker for us. Creating some turnovers and really pressuring them into some shots they might not have taken otherwise,” Fortner said after the game. That the Yellow Jackets’ shots began falling helped, too.

The size of Georgia Tech’s initial deficit meant the Ladyjacks still had a six-point lead with three minutes left in the fourth quarter, but Georgia Tech kept SFA scoreless on their next three possessions and then scored on their own three possessions—a layup, a midrange jump shot and two free throws—to tie the game up and send it to overtime, making what would be the fourth-largest comeback in tournament history. (Rest easy, 2017 Penn women. Your blown 21-point fourth quarter lead against Texas A&M remains the record.)

There was no doubt as to which team had the momentum going into overtime, though SFA didn’t lose this one for lack of OT chances. They were down five with under two minutes to play when freshman forward Avery Brittingham drew a foul on a layup, and converted the three-point play to trim Georgia Tech’s lead to 54–52 with 47 seconds left. She then grabbed a huge defensive rebound on the other end to get SFA the ball on the final possession. Alas, that’s where her luck would run out. On the last play, Brittingham missed two point-blank attempts while being swarmed by Georgia Tech players. She did eventually get a putback attempt to fall, though it was about a second after the final buzzer sounded.

A reporter in the postgame press conference complimented Georgia Tech on an exciting game. Fortner replied, “I’m glad you enjoyed it.”