Jan. 7, 2012
By Jon Cooper
That there was no court storming at Philips Arena following Georgia Tech’s ACC opener Saturday afternoon against No. 5/3 Duke shouldn’t have surprised anyone.
How close there came to seeing one may have.
“We already knew we had it in us,” said Rice, who added a team- and game-high-tying eight rebounds. “We had to come out and show it to everybody else because, as a team, we knew that if we played hard and practiced hard that we could compete with anybody.”
The Jackets trailed 32-14 with 8:07 left in the first half but never backed down.
“We stuck with our game plan and we made plays,” he said. “We made big plays and we just fought. We stuck with our principles and ended up coming back.”
They certainly put a scare into Duke, taking them down to the wire, twice having an opportunity to tie in the final three minutes.
“Once Rice got going, I thought Tech got going,” said Duke head coach Mike Krzyzewski. “He’s a high-level player, a high-level athlete He made some shots.
“I thought that was the best game [Udofia] played this year,” he added. “I watched about six of their games before this. They played well. We had to play really well to win. We beat a really good team that had a great effort against us.”
They put in the effort but simply couldn’t finish.
The Jackets, who had been 6-for-6 from the line over the first 17 minutes of the second half, missed five of their final six free throws, and Duke squirmed off the hook, thanks, primarily to junior forward Ryan Kelly, who hit all 14 of his free throws, eight of them over the final 36 seconds.
“I am pleased and proud of the effort our guys gave and the reseliancy that they showed in the first half,” said Tech head coach Brian Gregory of his ACC debut. “At the same time, it is another step in this process that we are going to go through together that we can build on. When you play with that effort and that energy and that team attitude, it doesn’t always guarantee success, but in the long run you are going to be highly successful.
“We don’t get a win out of it but I’m not measuring where we’re at by that final score board right now,” he added. “I said that after the Georgia game, when we won. I’m going to stick to that.”
Saturday definitely was progress.
There were moments that displayed the level of play that Gregory is seeking.
Tech outrebounded Duke, 38-26 for the game and held a 15-9 edge on the offensive glass. That possession had Gregory especially animated as he emphatically clapped and yelled encouragement.
That effort not only fired up Gregory but also the Tech portion of the crowd of 9,277, which was so ready to bust out and compete with a large Duke contingent.
It was the Tech contingent that nearly blew the roof of Philips when Duke called a timeout with 1:25 left in the half following an electrifying ally-oop slam by Jason Morris, then roared again when an offensive rebound led to a Udofia three that brought Tech to within 40-35 at the half.
While the Duke crowd wasn’t prepared for Tech’s resolve, Krzyzewski was.
“I knew we would get a great effort from their team,” he said. “[Gregory’s] background is of championship ilk. So his team is going to play that way. We expected that.”
Udofia finished with 16 points and hit his first six field goal attempts, including shooting a perfect 3-for-3 (2-for-2 from three) and 2-for-2 from the line in the first half. But he’ll likely remember his two missed free throws.
Rice, who shot 10-for-17 for the game and had 20 of his 28 on a sizzling 8-for-11 shooting in the final 20 minutes, will likely feel the same way about his two missed FTAs with Tech down four.
The Jackets’ sudden cooling off at the line combined with Kelly’s perfect shooting, proved too much to complete the comeback.
The final score may have showed a wire-to-wire loss for Georgia Tech, which is 0-1 in the ACC and losers of four straight games.
But the Jackets made a point.
The goal now is to show the same intensity they showed against the ACC’s best against the rest of the conference.
The next game comes Wednesday when Tech heads to Raleigh, N.C. to face NC State but the next opportunity comes Monday in practice.
“We’ve been practicing hard and it translates to the game,” said Rice. “We keep practicing hard it’s going to translate to the game no matter who we play.”
“If we keep the same focus and want to play together and play our game and do things we do, it will carry over.”
With the “unbelievable honor” of coaching his ACC debut in the books, Gregory will begin writing next chapter in the program’s rebuilding.
“To build a program back is a daily process,” he said. “You have a much better chance of playing this way on Wednesday if you play this way Monday and Tuesday in practice and if guys come in [Sunday] and get some extra free throws in and watch film on their own, things like that. I’ve had the advantage of seeing a national championship program (as an assistant at Michigan State). That’s what those programs do. that’s what those players do.
“We want to be playing our best basketball at the end of February and March,” he added. “We know we have 16 games left to start doing that.”