March 6, 2016
By Matt Winkeljohn | The Good Word
Much as a rising tide lifts all boats, Georgia Tech’s still growing seniors Saturday lifted the Yellow Jackets to a win over Pitt and to the point of validation.
Not so long ago, when the ACC season was half finished, an outsider might’ve looked at the Jackets and considered them permanently moored. They’d won but two of nine conference games, and the fact that a few losses were oh-so-close could be viewed as a trend rather than a sign of potential just missed.
Then, they won six of their final eight contests, and a 63-59 victory over Pitt in McCamish Pavilion secured a bye through the first round of this week’s ACC Tournament. Wednesday, the Jackets will play Clemson.
Their elders have led, never more than on Saturday, when Marcus Georges-Hunt, Nick Jacobs, Charles Mitchell, Adam Smith and James White – three seniors and two graduate students – combined for 59 of 63 points, 31 of 41 rebounds, eight of 10 assists, four of five blocked shots and two steals.
“At 2-7 at the turn, they could have bought into the negativity,” said head coach Brian Gregory. “They could have bought into all the other stuff and they just wouldn’t do it. They do not do it. It’s a credit to them.”
The Jackets (18-13, 8-10 ACC) avenged an early loss to the Panthers (20-10, 9-9) by outrebounding the league’s top rebounding team 41-33, and blanking the visitors from beyond the 3-point line (0-of-11).
Tech held Pitt to 30 fewer points than in an 89-84 loss on Jan. 6, when the Panthers made 10-of-20 treys, by turning around a 36-29 halftime deficit.
It was done with faith.
The Jackets never stopped believing in the ways of Gregory, who prides his program on defense and rebounding. It’s just that for quite a while, Tech wasn’t very good defensively. Hard work changed that.
It would have been easy to lose faith.
Smith scored 16 of his 23 points in the second half, when he made all four of his 3-point tries. Georges-Hunt matched his career high with seven assists from his new point guard position. Jacobs had a double-double with 19 points and a game-high 12 rebounds to match a career high.
Mitchell added 11 rebounds as the Jackets neutralized a Pitt squad that led the ACC with a plus-6.6 rebounding margin. White made good use of his 12 minutes with three rebounds, two blocked shots and a steal.
The Jackets never stopped believing.
And Georges-Hunt started dishing.
Gregory and his staff moved Tech’s only four-year senior from the wing to point guard about a month ago, and while he kept scoring – he averaged 18.1 points in the ACC after scoring 10 Saturday – the Jackets’ offense became more versatile.
Tech took the lead for good when Smith drained a 3-pointer with 6:24 left in the game. A nice pass from Georges-Hunt led to a 56-55 edge the Jackets never lost.
Less than a minute later, Jacobs dunked off a no-look pass from Georges-Hunt, whom ACC teams are used to seeing handle the ball a lot – usually trying to score.
One more time, Georges-Hunt found Smith for a trey at the 2:17 mark.
“It seemed like everybody had turned toward me and started coming at me, and Nick was just wide open,” Marcus said. “I just have to read what they give me. A lot of times they back off of Adam. I don’t know why, but it makes it easy for me to find him and he’s always ready to shoot.”
Smith’s trademark shooting was critical. His defense was no less important.
He spent most of his time marking Pitt point guard James Robinson.
“I told Adam at the beginning of the year we were trying to find anybody within the borders of the United States that he could defend,” the head coach said. “We had to throw some challenges out to him.”
Robinson scored nine points with three assists Saturday with Smith dogging him.
The coaches switched Georges-Hunt onto the Pitt point man late in the game, but that did not last long.
“They told me and Marcus to switch, and put me on [Chris] Jones. I kind of threw a fit,” Smith said. “I was like, ‘Nah; I don’t want to do that . . . ‘ [Gregory] is right. I have kind of taken a challenge. I embraced it.”
Georges-Hunt smiled at the memory.
“When he went to shoot the free throws, I was like, ‘You got Jones . . . ‘ Marcus said. “He said, ‘No, no, I got Robinson.’ I said, ‘Uh, OK. I’ll get Jones.’ “
Jacobs got a message at halftime. Gregory wanted more body on Pitt forward Michael Young, who scored 18 points up to intermission. Nick obliged, and crowded Young to 2-of-6 shooting in the second half.
“I think the first play of the second half Nick put his chest in from of him and got an offensive foul,” Gregory said. “That kind of set the tone.”
Mitchell’s tone has changed. He scored just six points Saturday, yet still authored a good story. Once upon a time, if he wasn’t scoring he might tune out. The coach said Chuck has matured past that.
Saturday, he grabbed 11 rebounds and combined with others to hold the Panthers to 10-of-29 shooting in the second half. Pitt also tried just four free throws in the second half, making three.
Tech had big problems with free throw disparity over the first half of the season, like when Pitt made 23-of-30 on Jan. 6. The Jackets, though, are dramatically better at defending without fouling.
“We’re much better defensively. I thought we weren’t defending the ball as well as we needed to, and we’ve gotten better at that. We’ve gotten better at our help defense and our rotations,” Gregory said. “Ben [Lammers] has helped us. James has helped us. Chuck has gotten a little better, and Nick has gotten a little better.”
The Jackets are better in many ways because they never stopped believing in Gregory’s notion that stopping the ball is more important than scoring it. That’s why they won’t play again until Wednesday.
Postseason aspirations remain afloat.
“We’ve put in a lot of work, and it’s not over,” Georges-Hunt said. “Even though we won, you still have to learn. Defense is where it starts for us.”