A new era of women’s basketball at Georgia Tech begins Tuesday when the Yellow Jackets open the season under coach Nell Fortner.
Thus, a new cheer is expected to ring through McCamish Pavilion this fall: “Nell Yeah.”
There’s plenty of reason for the optimism.
Fortner brings a track record of success into the job. She led Purdue to the Big Ten title in 1997 and took Auburn to the Southeastern Conference crown in 2009. Fortner coached the U.S. national team to three international championships, including the gold medal at the 2000 Summer Olympics.
Fortner will make her Georgia Tech debut against Houston on Tuesday at 7 p.m. at McCamish Pavilion.
Her challenge is to bring some peace and stability to the women’s program, which suffered from internal strife last season and led to the dismissal of coach MaChelle Joseph, the school’s all-time winningest women’s coach.
A late-season mutiny by key players led to Joseph’s messy suspension and dismissal. The drama paved the way for Elizabeth Balogun and Elizabeth Dixon, a pair of McDonald’s All-Americans, to jump ship and transfer to powerful Louisville. Their departure stripped the team of 25.6 points and 11.5 rebounds and made the transition more difficult.
But Fortner has the cache to bridge almost any gap. She’s won 306 games as a college coach and has been a successful one at each of her stops. And not many coaches can show off their Olympic gold medal to a visiting recruit.
“It all starts with honesty and trust,” Fortner said. “You have to trust your players on and off the court. When you get in the heat of the moment, you’ve got to be able to trust the players around you. That’s the culture that has to be built. That’s where you start.”
The roster is solid and returns three starters: senior guard Francesca Pan, junior guard Kierra Fletcher and junior forward Lorela Cubaj, who all opted to stay after the regime change.
Pan, a smooth-shooting guard, saw her average drop to 12 points last season. She averaged 11.5 as a freshman and 14.3 as a sophomore. Pan will need to regain her stroke that saw her field goal percentage drop to 32.4 last season. Fletcher averaged 8.9 points and 2.7 assists. Cubaj is a dogged defender, led the team with 7.3 rebounds, and averaged 7.0 points.
“The way the game is being played now is really fun,” Fortner said. “I like to play fast, want to push the ball. Can we do that? I don’t know, but that’s my intentions.”
The Yellow Jackets also bring back regulars Chanin Scott, Lotta-Maj Lahtinen and high school all-America Jasmine Carson.
Two newcomers could have an impact — guard Sarah Bates and forward Nerea Hermosa.
Bates is a guard who averaged 10 points as a true freshman at Santa Barbara and transferred to Kansas State. She sat out last season and then transferred to Georgia Tech. Hermosa is a native of Spain who brings extensive international experience. She was a starter for the country’s national team.
Georgia Tech went 17-13 a year ago. The Yellow Jackets were picked to finish 10th by the ACC Coaches at the preseason meeting.