Georgia Tech – last-minute killers.
The Yellow Jackets pulled out a third consecutive close call, this time executing a theft on Clemson by coming back from 13 down in the second half to win 75-73 Tuesday night at McCamish Pavilion.
“I’m just glad that we made the critical plays dwon the stretch again in these games that you need to make to be successful,” Tech coach Brian Gregory said.
Tech, which not so long ago seemed fated to lose games in the final minutes, has beaten Florida State by six, Notre Dame by one and the Tigers by a bucket in the past three games, giving the Jackets their first three-game winning streak in ACC regular-season play since the 2007-08 season. Prior to the win over Wake Forest on Feb. 10, Tech was 2-20 in ACC regular-season games decided by single digits in the past two seasons. The Jackets have now won their last four such games, improving their record to 16-12 overall and 6-9 in the ACC.
Tech rallied from a 13-point margin with 16:57 to play in the game, finally chasing down Clemson with 2:05 to play on a shake-and-bake 3-pointer by guard Adam Smith. The Jackets closed it out when, with the score tied at 73, guard Marcus Georges-Hunt made two free throws with three seconds remaining after getting fouled on a drive to the basket. Georges-Hunt scored a game-high 25 points despite taking just 10 shots from the field, while Smith tossed in 20, 15 in the second half.
Clemson (16-12, 9-7) had won 12 of the past 13 against the Jackets.
Down early on
Tech put itself in a crater by playing loose defense in the first half. With effective ball movement and screening, Clemson was able to find open shooters both at the rim and on the perimeter. The Tigers also took advantage of Tech misses and turnovers to beat the Jackets down the floor for transition scores. Clemson shot 52.9 percent for the half and went into halftime up 44-35, which represented the most points Tech had given up in the first half of an ACC game this season and also the largest halftime deficit of the season. Georges-Hunt’s 3-pointer at the buzzer ended a 17-6 run for Clemson.
“In that first half, that was a clinic that they put on us offensively,” Gregory said.
Clemson forward Jaron Blossomgame proved a tricky matchup for the Jackets early on. Tech has typically guarded him with front-court players and began the game with forward Charles Mitchell defending him. With a small forward’s game, Blossomgame was too quick for Mitchell and center Ben Lammers, and he scored 17 points in the first half on 11 shots.
Gregory switched Georges-Hunt onto him late in the first half, which seemed to turn the tide. Blossomgame, from Chattahoochee High School, came into the game averaging 18.1 points, fourth in the ACC, and had scored a career-high 33 points in Clemson’s previous game, a loss to N.C. State. However, with Georges-Hunt defending him in the second half, he scored just five points and was 2-for-8 shooting.
“We challenged (Georges-Hunt) at halftime, because Blossomgame was killing us,” Gregory said.
Georges-Hunt excellent again
Georges-Hunt continued his excellent play. After scoring 46 points in the Jackets’ two wins last week, including the buzzer-beating game-winner over Notre Dame, he was the model of efficiency. He scored on seven of his first eight field-goal attempts and finished with 25 points (8-for-10 from the field, 8-for-9 from the line) for his third 20-point game in the past five. The soul of this team, Georges-Hunt is closing his senior season with a flourish, including the drive on the basket that resulted in the game-winningn free throws.
“It seemed like us not calling a timeout (after Clemson had tied the game), they were scrambling all over the place, and everything was just open,” Georges-Hunt said. “I just took advntage of it. They gave me enough toom to get a head of steam going at (center Landy Nnoko), and I just tried to make one move to get past him and tried to go up and finish, but got fouled.”
Turning the tables
The Jackets won in almost the exact opposite fashion in which they have frequently lost ACC games in recent seasons. The losers of four ACC games this season in which it had led at the half, Tech rallied from a 13-point deficit with 16:57 to play and an 11-point hole with 12:19 left. Where the Jackets had often lost by failing to come up with winning plays, they delivered when the game was on the line.
Playing with poise on offense and challenging shots on defense, the Jackets tore off a 9-0 run to close to 60-58 with 8:49 left, and then out-executed the Tigers in the closing stretch, relying heavily on a burst from Smith, who scored eight points in the final 3:40.
“Kudos to these guys, they kept finding me, Coach Gregory and the staff kept calling plays my way, and I was converting them,” Smith said.
Still in it
The Jackets kept alive their slim hopes to win an at-large berth in the NCAA tournament with the win. Bracketologists project that Tech will need to win all of its remaining regular-season games – against Boston College Saturday, Louisville March 1 and Pittsburgh March 5 – and then follow that up with at least one and possibly two wins in the ACC tournament.