Attempting a breakthrough victory, Georgia Tech pushed No. 7 North Carolina to the hilt Saturday afternoon, but were undone by the talented and swift Tar Heels at the Smith Center.
The Yellow Jackets led by as many as nine points in the first half and as late as the 6:00 mark in the second half, but were finally chased down in an 86-78 defeat, the 10th consecutive ACC opener that they’ve lost.
Led by forward Marcus Georges-Hunt’s 25 points and guard Adam Smith’s 20, Tech (10-4, 0-1 ACC) could not give coach Brian Gregory his first win over the Tar Heels (13-2, 2-0), dropping his mark against them to 0-7.
“We’re past the point of ‘All right, we competed with a really good team,’” Gregory said. “We’ve got to figure out a way to break through and win the game.”
Not enough rebounding
Tech lost the rebounding battle, 39-29, a critical shortcoming. Before Saturday, the Jackets generated 20 percent of their scoring off second-chance points, but were effectively walled off the offensive glass. They collected just eight offensive rebounds — well off their 14.3 average — and scored eight second-chance points, 10 percent of their output.
Limited to 18 minutes by foul trouble, Tech forward and elite offensive rebounder Charles Mitchell had 14 points, but just six rebounds, 5.6 under his average
Overwhelmed in second half
Tech seemed in a race to keep UNC’s transition game and its array of scorers under tenuous control for as long as possible. Particularly in the first half, the Jackets had success sending extra defenders at Tar Heels point guard Marcus Paige in the backcourt to slow him and give teammates time to retreat on defense. They also took care of the ball against North Carolina’s traps and length, avoiding turnovers that could lead to easy fast breaks.
But the Jackets weren’t as conscientious in the second half, and the Tar Heels took advantage. They shot 57.7 percent from the field in the second half after converting 45.5 percent in the first half. Gregory said UNC’s pace “got us on our heels a couple times.”
Big lift from Smith
Smith was electric for the Jackets, including 14 points in the first half with 4-for-5 shooting from 3-point range. The graduate transfer from Virginia Tech cooled off in the second, relatively speaking, and missed a couple of open 3-pointers, but still was 6-for-10 on 3-pointers for the game.
Said North Carolina coach Roy Williams of Smith, “I thought he was sensational.”
Attention to Smith helped free Georges-Hunt to attack the basket and find his own jumpers. Using his strength and savvy to create contact and draw fouls, Georges-Hunt went to the line a career-high 15 times, making 12 (also a career high) for 25 points (tying his career high).
The game was lost for good for the Jackets at the 6:00 mark. Tech led 67-66 and Smith had an open 3-pointer, but missed. He got his own rebound, and then center Ben Lammers’ long jump shot was short. On the ensuing possession, UNC guard Joel Berry II knocked down a 3-pointer to give the Tar Heels a lead they never relinquished. UNC was 1-for-10 from 3-point range to that point. It started an 8-0 run — Berry had a basket-and-foul 3-point play on the next possession — that roused the arena and seemed to fluster the Jackets for long enough to begin to seal their fate.
“To me, those were the two biggest plays in the game right there,” Williams said.
More competitive loss
Considering that Tech lost each of the first six games to North Carolina in Gregory’s tenure by double digits and by an average of 19 points, the game might be considered an encouraging development. The Jackets held their own with the No. 7 team in the country in its own arena for 34 minutes and outplayed the Tar Heels for stretches.
“We went straight at ’em,” Smith said.
Williams said he told Gregory before the game, “I liked his club so, so much better than they were last year.”
Tech will play again Wednesday at Pittsburgh, another tough assignment. The Panthers were rated No. 22 in RPI before Saturday’s games.