Dec. 4, 2013
By Matt Winkeljohn
The answers are not all in and won’t be for months, yet the Yellow Jackets turned back a big question Tuesday night in closing with a 19-4 run to beat Illinois 67-64 in McCamish Pavilion.
Do they have “it” in them?
Yes, the Jackets have the intangibles that coach Brian Gregory alludes to often, the grit to stand firm in the face of adversity, the ability to not let one bad play bleed into more, the skill to make tough shots, grab rebounds when it matters most and . . . to make big free throws with so much on the line.
Tech trailed 60-53 with 9:15 remaining. Illini guard Rayvonte Rice had gone microwave while scoring 24, and at times the home team’s offense looked lost.
Nearly all the while, they competed as if it mattered and that would ultimately matter most.
After sophomore Robert Carter, Jr. made a pair of free throws with three seconds left, and Illinois shooter Tracy Abrams soon missed a 3-point shot, a signature win was banked, the Illini (7-1) were no longer undefeated, and Tech (6-3) learned up.
“That’s the kind of game I really think a Georgia Tech team should play,” Gregory said. “That’s the way I envisioned it, playing with that type of toughness, that type of intensity and energy.”
After closing each half hard (Tech led 36-33 at halftime after trailing by nine), and making more of the meaningful plays at the most meaningful moments, the Jackets had cause to feel good about themselves.
McCamish had rocked; a rare air permeated Tuesday night.
“I thought the place at the end was electric,” Gregory said. “This place can be a heck of a place for a game. We’ve got to do our part, but when it gets going, it’s pretty fun to be in. I appreciate the fans.”
The Jackets did well so many of the things they did not a couple weeks back in a home loss to Dayton that left them low. Not always – questions remain – but often enough to prompt optimism.
So Carter Jr., whose 21 points and nine rebounds were large, and fellow sophomore Marcus Georges-Hunt (20 points) smiled still some 30 minutes after the game.
All the preaching, all the coaching . . . they had their best proof yet of what it is Gregory is talking about when he goes beyond diagramming plays and talking technique.
“It was amazing. We just put everything together when it needed to be put together, and to be able to come out of here with a victory is amazing,” Carter Jr. said. “All we were telling each other was get a stop, and not to be timid on offense.”
Tech led 44-39 before Rice scored 10 straight Illinois points and 15 of their 17 in a wide variety of ways – free throws, a dunk, a 3-pointer, a layup, jumpers. After a nice blitz where Georgia Tech struggled at both ends of the court, the Illini held a seven-point bulge with 9:15 left when Nnanna Egwu dunked.
The Illini did not score for the next 7:42.
Their switching defenses gave the Jackets problems at times; they had difficulty adjusting to change. In timely fashion, the home team figured it out.
Georges-Hunt’s 3-pointer started the rally. Daniel Miller blocked a shot that led to a Carter Jr. layup.
Senior Trae Golden had issues Tuesday. Even when not fouling early, he wasn’t scoring much.
Yet his steal led to a 3-pointer by Solomon Poole off a pass from Georges-Hunt.
The sophomore swingman added two free throws and a layup, and with 1:51 to go the game was tied at 60.
Illinois rebounded to a 64-60 lead in less than a minute.
Miller rebounded a missed Illini free throw, however, and Carter Jr. hit a trey off a pass from Golden.
The Jackets were working in fine concert both in words and deeds.
“Being able to come together and stay strong even though they took the lead, we didn’t put our heads down,” Georges-Hunt said. “We told each other, ‘Don’t give up, keep fighting.’”
Miller gathered a huge steal, and gave the Jackets a 65-64 lead at the other end with a nifty inside move.
Twenty five seconds remained. Illinois timeout.
The visitors worked the ball around. With five seconds to go, Joseph Bertrand’s 3-pointer missed. Carter Jr. rebounded. Abrams fouled him.
With three left, Big Bob took the line.
“First thing I thought about was all those nights in the gym, shooting free throws . . . this is what it was for. I felt so confident,” he recalled. “Being in the gym, imagining the moment. It’s like I did it 1,000 times.”
Not all questions are answered. Gregory wants to see players bring such hyper-focused sense of mission and resilience to every game, and not for stretches. He needs to see “it” more often.
Tuesday, though, took on the hue of a step forward into more of “it.”
“Our two sophomores were exceptional, and we need that on a daily basis,” he said. “Our seniors, (Miller and Golden), made plays there at the end,” the coach said. “We’ve got a ways to go, but if you give that type of effort and play with that type of intensity, then you got a shot.”
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