March 5, 2014
By Matt Winkeljohn
The Good Word
One year ago today, Georgia Tech registered its biggest win under head coach Brian Gregory when Marcus Georges-Hunt tipped in a ball at the buzzer to give the Yellow Jackets a 71-69 win at No. 6/7 Miami.
Tuesday’s 67-62 win at No. 7 Syracuse felt better.
“Big might be an understatement. It’s a huge win for us,” senior Trae Golden told reporters after scoring 16 points. “We beat one of the top teams in the country.”
That’s why Gregory was nearly euphoric in a couple moments after the game when he spent time with radio man Brandon Gaudin.
“Never a dull moment with this group; I’m so happy for them,” the coach said on the post-game show. “They’ve been through a lot. I’m just proud of our guys. We’ve fought all year long. There have been through a lot of challenges.
“Our guys have never lost hope, never lost their resolve. You’ve just got to give them a lot of credit because if they’ve learned anything, they’ve got that and that’s going to serve them pretty well down the road in life.”
He has a point.
The Jackets’ record might look from far like a mess, but if you’ve had an up-close vantage point during the season you know that there have been opportunities that might inspire some to surrender. This team hasn’t.
The win over the Hurricanes was a big deal in the next-to-last game of a regular season that had seen measureable improvement over Gregory’s first run at the helm. The Jackets beat the ACC’s regular-season champs on their floor.
A loss the next time out at Boston College left the Jackets 16-14, and 6-12 in the ACC to finish the regular season. A year earlier, Tech finished 11-19, 4-12.
Saturday’s regular season finale will arrive with the Jackets 14-15, 5-12. A win over the Hokies (9-20, 2-15) in McCamish Pavilion will leave Tech with the same ACC record, and a swing of one game overall.
This, tough, has been a nearly impossible season to measure.
The Jackets faced a tougher schedule this season with Notre Dame, Pitt and Syracuse entering the league and a little more difficulty in the non-conference slate as well.
That likely has had less to do with Tech’s record than season-ending injuries to guard Travis Jorgenson (knee) and senior swing man Jason Morris, who was in and out of the lineup even before needing another foot surgery.
Leading scorer Golden has been hobbled by a groin injury for weeks. He missed two games, and was dramatically slowed in others. The senior guard is still not the player that he was; he’s become more a shooter and much less a driver.
He was crafty enough Tuesday in the next-to-last regular season game to get to the free throw line eight times and make them all.
Robert Carter Jr., who was leading the ACC in rebounding, went down in the final non-conference game with a knee injury and missed the first 10 conference games. He had 12 rebounds and nine assists at Syracuse.
His replacement, Kam Holsey, has been playing – but not practicing – with a bum knee for several weeks.
Seconding-leading scorer Georges-Hunt has fought a hip injury and other ailments, and just about every player on the team has been nicked.
And yet there the Jackets were in the Carrier Dome, fighting their tails off. They didn’t pull it off at the end, either. Tech led 31-23 at halftime, withstood increased defensive pressure from the Orange in the second half.
Tech would turn the ball over but nine times, and Heyward and Golden did not have a turnover between them.
Golden scored half of his 16 points in a perfect night at the free throw line.
“I kind of went back to when I was a kid and just knocked them in,” Golden said. “My dad [Robert] used to make me nervous when I was younger. It made me think about that calm.”
Senior center Daniel Miller was borderline sublime with 15 points (on 7-for-10 shooting), six rebounds, six blocked shots, four assists, two steals and not a single turnover.
Gregory told the Jackets, “A lot of times, our seniors didn’t make a mistake.”
Heyward didn’t score although that’s not what he’s become known for giving the Jackets. The redshirt freshman from Duluth is the basketball sidecar to his brother Cameron, a Pittsburgh Steelers defensive lineman.
Syracuse freshman phenom Tyler Ennis scored 18 points, but he earned much of them when Heyward was out with foul trouble. In just 18 minutes, he had five rebounds (Tech forged a 39-38 advantage on the boards) and two assists.
“Ennis could not get to the basket; Corey’s got some improving to do, but he can guard anybody,” Gregory said. “We’ve gotten better defensively, and when we rebound and don’t give up second shots . . . the other thing is . . . we didn’t turn the ball over and there weren’t a lot of transition baskets. We emphasized that.”
Collectively, the Jackets toughed up, and where in some games this season their intensity waned down the stretch it did not at Syracuse. Golden was gold at the line, and Tech competed.
Even as the brilliant C.J. Fair tried while scoring a career-high 28 points to rally the Orange, the visitors meet each challenge.
“Our guys showed some great toughness . . . we kept our poise,” the coach said. “I’m really happy for our guys, and happy for our fans back home. We’ve had some tough times. It means the world to us during this process to understand that we’ve got to keep fighting together.”
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