Diminishing Returns

March 9, 2012

By Matt Winkeljohn
Sting Daily

– Stretched taut as possible Thursday night, Georgia Tech snapped. A reversal of fortune in the Yellow Jackets’ season-ending game was violent.

In Philips Arena, you saw the psychological connection between work and reward, between defense and offense, and a thin line walked.

A third party was involved; hint: they had whistles. This was somewhat like the personal foul call last fall that dramatically reversed poles when the Jackets were working Virginia Tech only to go hard south in Bobby Dodd Stadium.

For well over a half Thursday, Tech defended Miami so well in the ACC Tournament as to match a dream. The Jackets weren’t scoring much, leading just 20-19 at halftime, but so long as they continued to flummox the Hurricanes, they had a real shot at avenging a dreadful regular-season loss. This was Tech’s method.

Center Daniel Miller blocked four shots and grabbed five rebounds in the first half, when Miami mastadon Reggie Johnson missed all three shots. He had partners; the `Canes made just 6-of-25 shots in the half, and 1-of-9 from beyond the 3-point line.

Miami’s twin bigs would finish the night making just 4-of-20 shots.

Their frustration was palpable and so was Tech’s verve.

When coach Brian Gregory said afterward that, “Guys played with unbelievable intensity and great togetherness on the defensive end,” he wasn’t exaggerating.

Jason Morris confirmed: “We were locked in in that first half. I felt like we took them out of all their sets.”

This continued in the second half. It wasn’t aesthetically pleasing, but it was intriguing as heck. There was an all-out battle afoot, trench-style with no air support nor advanced weaponry.

As the slog continued, Tech built a 27-24 lead on back-to-back unlikely plays.

The Jackets are not wont to get to the basket often; it was this season one of their distinct soft spots, the other being ball security.

Yet Brandon Reed scored on a drive, Miller bothered yet another inside shot attempt by Miami and grabbed one of his nine defensive rebounds, and Reed drove again. He was fouled, made both free throws, and with 14:25 left in the game Tech led by three.

Soon, though, a hole was poked in Tech’s tightly-stretched band.

After a couple Miami free throws, Rion Brown was unaccounted for and hit a 3-pointer. The `Canes led 29-27.

In retrospect, make-or-break time had arrived. The next stoppage in play would bring a TV timeout, and the Jackets were ready to ride a swell into it.

Miller took a pass on the high post. Many have wanted him to more often attack. He did there, going hard down the lane to score through a Miami bruise for a tie.

Problem: though a whistle blew, it was not to be one of the mere eight fouls called against the `Canes — in the entire game.

“I thought I was going to the line, you know, to [shoot] for the lead,” he said.

The charging call directly in front of the Tech bench sent the Jackets into a tizzy, and brought catcalls from a late-night crowd.

The tide had turned. Miami was five points into an 18-0 run that ended it. Miller’s thrust to reverse the `Canes’ budding push was thwarted.

The band had snapped as if cut by scissors.

Gregory has said so many times that his time has little margin for error that perhaps the Jackets too much believe it. Turns out, they have slim margin, too, for a controversial call at an inopportune time.

When a team is working as hard defensively as the Jackets were, there comes a point where that work can begin to seem pointless if there is not substantive reward at the other end of the floor. Transition points, free throws, points of any kind.

The Jackets weren’t getting them. Here, in fact, they had them taken away. They went about eight minutes without scoring.

Seconds after the TV timeout ended, Brown got loose for another trey and the rout was on. Tech’s attentiveness was swirling the drain.

“It was a big energy shift in the game,” Morris said. “Everyone was fired up; we saw [Miller] take it to the basket and they kind of snatched it from under us.”

The coach said, “The problem is it is just hard to keep digging in on the defensive end when you struggle to make any baskets, and we did and we have at times this year.”

After Brown’s second straight 3-pointer, Tech turned the ball over and Miami scored on an easy layup. Timeout, Jackets — just 45 seconds after the TV stoppage.

It didn’t help.

Morris’ inbound pass was easily picked off by Shane Larkin — son of soon-to-be Hall of Famer Barry — and Miami soon scored another easy one for a 36-27 lead.

“I felt like we were still in it, but momentum was definitely changing,” Miller said. “Later, it kind of just sucked the life out of us.”

If the game wasn’t gone, it soon would be; “later,” came like this: Miller missed a shot, and Morris leaped to jam it.

From a sideline angle, the ball appeared to be out of the cylinder and off to the front. The official making the call was baseline, nearly behind the basket, and not at an angle to see that as Morris stuffed it.

A whistle blew. Offensive interference. No basket.

That call, right or wrong, went in the books as one of Tech’s 20 turnovers, and Miami scored quickly for a 38-27 lead.

“That was probably the end of it,” Miller said.

In Miami’s 18-0 run, Tech missed six jumpers and turned the ball over five times.

The season ended 54-36.

“The frustration just kept building up because of the offensive struggles,” Morris said. “As a team, I feel like we reached the point where we can dig in for a half, or a half and a half (of a half), 30 minutes.

“But, as you said, we have zero margin for error. When we don’t translate the stops we get into baskets, that’s going to get discouraging; guys are going to lose focus. When we reached [Miller’s] foul . . . the focus just started scattering.”

The point here was not to suggest that officials took this game from the Jackets, although these two calls were enormous. The greater observation is that Tech was not this season wired to cope with adversity of certain types — the kind referenced above.

The Jackets did not have the offensive acumen to repeatedly brush off misfortune. Their psychological endurance was finite. When you’re giving your all, and it’s not enough in part because a couple very controversial calls take from your body of work, that’s tough.

It wasn’t easy to watch.

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