Seemingly cursed to lose ACC games by single digits but never win them, Georgia Tech finally turned the tables. The Yellow Jackets held off No. 4 Virginia down the stretch to earn their first ACC win of the season, a 68-64 victory at McCamish Pavilion on Saturday afternoon.
Tech, which was 0-13 in ACC games decided by seven points or fewer last season, began league play with single-digit road losses to then-No. 7 North Carolina and No. 24 Pittsburgh. However, with easily its best game of the season, Tech held the Cavaliers to 40.4 shooting and received a huge boost from forward Quinton Stephens, who scored a season-high 16 points. He was 4-for-4 from behind the 3-point arc, each a well-timed lift for the Jackets (11-5 overall, 1-2 ACC). Virginia (12-3, 1-2) has lost back-to-back ACC games for the first time since the 2012-13 season.
“Our guys have kept great faith and believed without seeing it,” coach Brian Gregory said. “That’s what it is. You have to believe it before it happens, and you’ve got to keep talking about it. You’ve got to stay positive about it, and our guys have done a good job of that. Now, we need to build on that.”
Here are five observations from the game:
After allowing North Carolina and Pittsburgh to shoot a combined 50 percent from the field in the past two games, the Jackets made the Cavaliers work much harder on offense than they did the Tar Heels and Panthers, challenging shots and disrupting Virginia’s timing-based offense. The Cavaliers’ shooting percentage was 10 points below their season average, which ranked eighth in the country before the game.
Guard Marcus Georges-Hunt hounded Virginia All-American and Greater Atlanta Christian grad Malcolm Brogdon. While Brogdon scored a game-high 19, he took 20 shots and was 1-for-9 from 3-point range.
“I felt like against Pitt we had our hands down,” Georges-Hunt said. “We were watching (video from that game) — hands down. We weren’t active; they were making any type of pass they wanted.”
In the losses to North Carolina and Pittsburgh, Tech received double-digit scoring in both games from Georges-Hunt, forward Charles Mitchell and guard Adam Smith, but no other player reached double digits in either game.
Stephens, whom Gregory gave his first start of the season, got to 10 points by the 12:42 mark of the first half, helping the Jackets to a lead they took five minutes in and held almost the entire rest of the game.
Gregory said Stephens, who had scored 10 points in the previous six games combined, “probably was the difference in the game.”
Forward Nick Jacobs also scored 16, including 6-for-7 from the free-throw line. Jacobs took six free throws in the previous five games combined. Forward James White, also in the starting lineup, scored only six points, but were off hustle plays early in the second half when the Cavaliers were trying to get back in the game. Virginia coach Tony Bennett called them “killers.”
“The first five minutes of the second half, James White saved our butt,” Gregory said.
When the game was won
Tech lost all of its 11-point halftime lead and fell into a 49-49 tie with 6:09 remaining after an 11-2 Virginia run. The Jackets had led since the 14:55 mark in the first half, but its offensive play had tightened and another come-from-ahead defeat seemed entirely possible. After Jacobs was fouled and made two free throws on a designed play coming out of a timeout, Stephens confidently stepped into back-to-back 3-pointers at the 4:03 and 3:14 marks to push the lead back to 57-49 and begin to secure a well-earned victory.
After a Stephens block snuffed a Virginia possession, Smith followed with another 3-pointer at the 2:22 mark to extend the lead to 11 and begin to close the game down.
Stephens has been putting in extra shooting work, which he said has given him confidence.
“You know that you’ve put the work in, so you’re going to believe in yourself,” he said. “You’re betting on yourself.”
The win was Tech’s first over a team ranked in the top five since January 2010, a win over a No. 5 Duke team before Gregory’s hire. Gregory said wins over Georgia will always be the biggest for the team, but termed the win over Virginia “by far our biggest win after that.”
Under Gregory, Tech had previously beaten three ranked ACC teams, including two in the top 10, but all were on the road. It made it doubly sweet, certainly, that the Cavaliers have given Tech and Gregory some of their most humbling defeats, including a 57-28 blowout last season in Charlottesville, Va.
The Jackets could get a significant bounce from such a noteworthy victory. Tech next plays Wednesday at Notre Dame, the defending ACC champion.
“This win can start something special, start the journey that we’ve planned since last March,” Georges-Hunt said.