Finish Line In Sight, Just Out of Reach

Jan. 8, 2015

By Jon Cooper
The Good Word

Learning how to close out games may be the toughest lesson for a young team to learn.

For the second straight game, Georgia Tech learned just how hard it can be, falling 46-45 to Syracuse on Wednesday night at McCamish Pavilion in its ACC home-opener.

“It was obviously a tough one in terms of not being able to finish the game,” said Coach Brian Gregory. “We did a lot of good things in this game against a high-quality team, but just not enough, so it’s disappointing. A play here or there was the difference in the game.”

In front of a crowd of 7,831 for the White Out, Charles Mitchell scored 17 points and grabbed 11 rebounds, Marcus Georges-Hunt added nine and six, with two steals and Travis Jorgenson had another strong game, dishing out four assists and recording two steals in 23 minutes. However, it wasn’t enough to overcome a cold-shooting second half, during which Tech shot 17.2 percent (5-for-29), and concluded a 26.3 percent shooting night, the lowest in the Brian Gregory Era.

Despite the shooting struggles and 14 turnovers, (two more than Syracuse, the fourth straight game they’ve lost the turnover battle), Tech was still right there.

In a game that saw nine ties and 14 lead-changes and the biggest lead by either side was four points, the Jackets led in the final minute and shot to potentially ice the game, but a Jorgenson three-pointer from the left elbow didn’t go. Then, down by one in the final seconds following two Syracuse free throws, they shot to win the game, but Chris Bolden’s three from straight on missed and Quinton Stephens’ desperation attempt from underneath the basket hit the bottom side of the rim.

“A lot of the games we’ve played this year have ended up coming down to the last eight minutes. It’s about making the right plays, executing what the coaches draw up in the huddle,” said Georges-Hunt, who saw his streak of double-digit-scoring games end at five. “Back-to-back [losses] is kind of tough but you can’t dwell on it. You turn around and go right back out on the road. You learn from this one and you get ready for Saturday to play against Wake Forest.”

Tech just missed a big upset for the second straight ACC game, and heads into Saturday’s game at Wake Forest (8-8, 0-3), at 9-5, and an 0-2 conference record that could just as easily be 2-0.

Heart-breaking? Yes. Spirit-breaking? Not at all.

If Wednesday night showed anything it’s that the Jackets are more likely to break through than break. They did a lot of things right. They just couldn’t finish.

“We had countless layups that we just missed. We missed a couple on the break. We missed a couple of dunks off of some really good offensive action. We have to finish better,” said Gregory. “When you couple those misses with the 14 turnovers, it’s tough. The good of that is that it shows where we are good in some other areas. Unfortunately we need to tighten up those crucial areas. Finishing plays around the basket, in both these ACC losses, have been key contributors to a double overtime loss against a Top 15 team and the last possession loss tonight.”

Among the good things for Gregory’s squad was another solid effort by Mitchell, who shot 5-for-10 from the floor and 7-for-8 from the foul line, while pulling in 11 rebounds, four on the offensive boards.

“I wish I got one more offensive rebound coming down to the end of the game,” he said, with a laugh. “We try to play hard and show the most heart. It was a physical game but I felt like me and Demarco [Cox] and [Robert Sampson] played real physical, played real hard against them.”

Led by the Mitchell, Cox (six rebounds, all on the offensive end) and Sampson (three defensive rebounds), Tech outrebounded Syracuse, 43-33, and held a 19-11 edge on the offensive glass. But Syracuse held the edge in second-chance points, 10-9, as, again, finishing reared its ugly head.

The offense struggles with the Match-up Zone could have been foreseen, as all of Syracuse’s opponents have this season — Syracuse came in ranking fourth in the ACC in field goal percentage defense — and have for the 38 seasons prior during which Coach Jim Boeheim has run it.

Wednesday night at McCamish Pavilion was no exception but redshirt freshman Travis Jorgenson, sophomore Josh Heath and the entire Yellow Jackets team battled it. They stayed patient, even though it kept Georges-Hunt from getting a shot off until more than 14:30 had elapsed.

“The sweet spot is in the middle of the zone. That’s where you try to get the ball, shoot the ball in the middle it breaks down everything,” said Georges-Hunt. “But sometimes you’ve got to switch it up. You can’t always get in the middle. You’ve got to make them defend while they’re in the zone, make them scramble. That leads to open shots. A lot of open shots weren’t falling but as the season goes on they’ll start falling.”

“You try to get into the middle because once that happens good things happen,” agreed Jorgenson. “But they’re so long. They cover a lot of space and they can take away the good looks. They’re a good team and they run the zone well. It was tough to go against.”

The length of 6-9 senior center Rakeem Christmas, and 6-10 freshman forward Chris McCullough, tied for third in the ACC in blocks per game, has put the Orange in the top three in the ACC in blocked shots. Tech had four shots rejected and several more altered. It was a factor in the 10 missed layups — although some also were simply bad luck shots that didn’t go down.

To their credit, the Jackets never stopped attacking.

“They’re long but that wasn’t the first thing on my mind,” said Georges-Hunt. “My objective was try to get into the gaps and try to keep my eyes on the rim and go up and finish plays. But I can say they’re long and their length, when they’re contesting jump shots, even though a shot might seem open but they’re really out there with their length and high hands.”

Of course, Syracuse didn’t exactly thrive offensively. Georgia Tech forced the Orange into 34.6 percent shooting for the game and 12 turnovers, 10 coming in the second half, as both teams managed only 18 points. It was enough for Boeheim to call it “the worst offensive game I’ve ever seen. It was a struggle.”

Over the first nine minutes of the second half, Georgia Tech was 2-for-14 with six turnovers, while Syracuse 2-for-6 with seven miscues. The Jackets finished the half with five baskets, while the Orange had seven.

Take away Christmas’ 7-for-17, including a buzzer-beater to end the first half that gave Syracuse a 28-27 halftime lead, and forward Michael Gbinije’s 6-for-11 shooting, the rest of the Orange shot 5-for- 24. In fact, Christmas’ .412 shooting night was 21 points below his season average. He did go 4-for-4 at the foul line, including making the game-tying and game-winning FTMs with 12 seconds remaining.

“I thought we were exceptional on defense. We did really good job in terms of guarding the post,” said Gregory, whose team won points in the paint, 22-18. “Christmas is a tremendous player. He gets 18 points and eight boards, but we made him take 17 shots to get that. We did a good job on Trevor Cooney (3-for-10, 2-for-6 from three). We lost him a couple of times and he hit that big three off of an offensive rebound. Unfortunately, we just weren’t able to make enough plays in the last eight minutes against the zone.”

The three Cooney hit came at the 8:16 mark following a Jorgensen three-pointer that gave the Jackets a 41-37 lead, matching its biggest lead of the game. Off a Syracuse timeout, Gbinije pulled down an offensive rebound and fed Cooney. The shot began a crucial 7-0 run over the next four minutes.

Georgia Tech’s five empty possessions in that stretch proved costly and led to the disappointing finish.

Gregory remains justifiably optimistic that things will turn around and start falling the Jackets’ way.

“We had some good looks, we had a couple of costly turnovers but our formula has put us in a good position,” he said. “So now we need to take the next step and get into a position where we are able to finish the game. It was disappointing, but in this league you have to play well for 40 minutes. Unfortunately there were pockets in there where we didn’t.”

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