A Confident Cubaj
Freshman center Lorela Cubaj rising in confidence, raising Yellow Jackets in WNIT
By Jon Cooper
The Good Word
Confidence can be a dangerous thing, especially in March.
Georgia Tech women’s basketball had it and showed how dangerous it could be in last year’s WNIT.
Freshman forward Lorela Cubaj has it and is showing how dangerous she and the Yellow Jackets can be this year.
The 6-4 forward dominated both ends of the floor on Thursday night at McCamish Pavilion, going for 17 points, with 13 rebounds and seven assists -- all career-highs, the rebounds and assists game-highs -- with two blocks and two steals, as the Yellow Jackets cruised past Bethune-Cookman, 85-32.
“I thought Lorela Cubaj played one of the best games I’ve seen a post player at Georgia Tech play in my career,” said head coach MaChelle Joseph, who raised her record to 13-6 in WNIT play. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen a post player almost get a triple-double including assists. I think that was an outstanding effort by her. She’s shown how far she’s come.”
The Jackets (19-13) will play their second-round game Sunday afternoon at 2 p.m. at McCamish, hosting Conference USA regular-season champ Alabama Birmingham (27-6). UAB also advanced on Thursday, disposing of Chattanooga, 60-50.
Cubaj played a big part in the resounding victory over the Wildcats, as she recorded her first double-double of the year, shooting 8-for-16 in the process. The eight field goals, also a game-high and her season-high, were one fewer than Bethune-Cookman managed the entire game.
“Without my teammates I could never do that. They helped me,” said Cubaj, whose previous highs were 14 points and seven field goals, both in the Feb. 22 win over Miami at McCamish. “This was a good team win. Everybody showed up. I’m proud of the team.”
Joseph is proud of the progress Cubaj has showed.
The native of Terni, Italy, arrived in Atlanta as the second-ranked international prospect by ProspectsNation.com and the 14th-best player in her native Italy, but found that she needed time to adjust to DI play.
She struggled at times, shooting below 30 percent for the season and had made but five field goals in the 12 games leading up to the Miami game. But beginning with the game against the ‘Canes, Cubaj is shooting over 51 percent (22-for-43) and in her three postseason games -- the ACC Tournament first-round game against Clemson, the second-round game against Virginia and the WNIT first round game, she’s converting at 51.8 percent (14-for-27).
“You can just see how far she’s come in the last three months,” Joseph said. “It’s just her confidence. She’s always had tremendous effort but I thought she was playing so fast that she couldn’t even find the rim early in the season. I always felt like she was going to turn that corner. It took her a little longer than (freshman point guard) Kierra (Fletcher), but now she’s turned that corner and you can see how special those two freshmen really are.
“We’ve been talking since before the end of the ACC season that we need to establish Lorela Cubaj as a go-to player,” she added.
Joseph was confident that the development of the immensely talented Cubaj into an offensive threat behind countryman Francesca Pan (a team-high 19 vs Bethune-Cookman) and inside presence next to Zaire O’Neil (16 points) was just a matter of time.
Cubaj, who has played at different levels with the Italian National Team since 2015, played in the FIBA U18 European Championships and, last summer, the FIBA U19 World Championships, believes her arrival to this point was a matter of her taking her time.
“I think just relaxing on the court and keeping everything easy,” she said. “Just get through, maybe a mistake, just go on, don’t think about it, don’t over-think about it.”
The Jackets made Thursday night’s game an afterthought, turning up the intensity and pulling away after a first quarter that ended with them holding a 24-17 lead.
Scoring in the paint for Cubaj, and all the Jackets for that matter, was a big part of that, as the Jackets outscored the Lady Wildcats 50-10 in the paint. In addition to Cubaj’s production, O’Neil and Breanna Brown each put in five field goals and the Jackets grabbed 16 offensive rebounds as part of an 11-0 edge in second-chance points.
“One of our strengths is in the paint so we have to continue like that and improve with rebounds and points,” said Cubaj. “That’s really important for our team to win.”
As important was the Jackets’ devastating defense. In allowing a season-low 32 points (one fewer than the previous season-low, Dec. 31 vs. Clemson, a 66-33 rout), Tech held Bethune-Cookman to 19.6 percent shooting, limiting them to two field goals total over the final three quarters -- none in the fourth -- and forcing 29 turnovers, which Tech turned into 32 points.
“I was pleased with our defensive effort,” said Joseph. “I don’t know that ever since I’ve been at Georgia Tech, we’ve held somebody without a field goal in a quarter. I was really pleased with how well we played - in three quarters they scored two field goals. That’s just a tribute to our defensive effort and energy.”
The Jackets shut down Bethune-Cookman star Angel Golden, limiting her to eight points on 3-for-12 shooting. Cubaj, who frequently played out front of Tech’s 1-3-1 zone and who has drawn praise from Joseph all season long about her ability to guard all five positions on the floor, took great pride in her defense.
“I like to defend in general,” she said. “So for me, defense is not a problem. I really enjoy guarding the guards.”
Cubaj will get the opportunity to help to guard home court again on Sunday against UAB. The Jackets are 5-1 all-time against the Blazers (3-0 at home) and are 2-0 under Joseph, but the teams have not met since 2005, when the Jackets won 74-49 on Jan. 3 at Alexander Memorial Coliseum, then won in Birmingham in the ‘05-06 season-opener, 68-55. This is the schools’ first postseason meeting.
“We’re on a journey right now. We’re going to try to be playing to play the best basketball until the very end,” said Joseph. “We want to be playing on the last day and to do that we have to play a lot better than we played today but we’re going to take this one and we’re going to go back and watch the film and get ready for a very good UAB team. They’re a very well-coached team. They’re one of the better teams in the WNIT.”
Joseph believes the same is true of her team.
“I felt like we were one win away from being in the NCAA Tournament. If the Virginia game or the Florida State game goes a different way at the end we’re playing in the NCAA Tournament,” she said. “So I think we’re a very good basketball team. I think we played our best basketball in February and now into March, our young kids have started to figure it out and our seniors are stepping up and providing great leadership and giving us good minutes.”
Cubaj is counting on the home crowd to contribute to the effort to win-and-advance.
“The atmosphere is one of the best atmospheres that I have ever played in,” she said. “So for us it’s very important playing at home. It gives us a lot of energy on the court.”