A statement win slips away, but all isn’t lost for Georgia Tech

Yellow Jackets made a few too many mistakes and then ran out of gas in falling 73-64 to the Blue Devils at McCamish Pavilion in Atlanta. (Courtesy of ACC)

This felt like it might be it — a breakthrough victory for Georgia Tech, a program long past due to break upward. The Yellow Jackets had Duke, the nation's No. 2 team, going, and it isn't often a 7-7 opponent gets Duke going. But here Tech was, ahead with time flying, ahead after trailing by 11 at halftime.

The Blue Devils had gone nine possessions without a point, forcing Mike Krzyzewski to burn timeouts and do that time-honored K Thing of browbeating the refs for a call. The great man might also have settled for a rebound, a commodity his men were proving incapable of procuring. Little ol’ Tech was playing as big as all get-out, and for long moments this seemed the Jackets’ game to seize.

» PHOTOS: Tech lets Duke slip away

Thing is, Duke does that to you, which is among the million reasons folks — some folks, anyway — can’t stand Duke. The imperial Devils give you an opening and then snatch it back. If you’re Tech coach Josh Pastner, you’re surely wondering how many better chances than this you’ll have to stamp “Georgia Tech” back across the national hoops consciousness.

Duke nosed back ahead inside the final seven minutes. With 2:47 remaining, Tech’s Michael Devoe, among the nation’s better shooters, hoisted a transition 3-pointer that would have put his team ahead. A clean look, as they say in the trade. If you’re Pastner, you’re thinking, “If this goes in, we win.” It didn’t, and they didn’t.

Devoe's shot kerranged off the rim and over the backboard. Duke's Tre Jones scored from the lane to make it 68-64. The game wouldn't be a one-possession affair again. Indeed, Tech wouldn't score another point. It lost 73-64.

Said Krzyzewski: “Just a heck of a game. They’re a very good basketball team now they’ve got their team together. They can play with anybody. It’s a big-time win for us.”

We pause to note: The great man is invariably magnanimous in victory, and often in defeat. Hall of Famers tend to be that way, sometimes to goofy excess. After a narrow win in this building, Rick Pitino, then of Louisville, referred to Brian Gregory, then of Tech, as “one of the top 15 coaches in the country.” At the time, Gregory was barely one of the top 15 coaches in the 15-team ACC. Late on this Wednesday night, though, Coach K’s encomiums didn’t sound tinny.

This will come across as crazy, but here it is: On a night when the Jackets slipped below .500, it was still possible to envision them being 19-12 or thereabouts when the regular season ends. With their strength of schedule — as of Thursday morning, they were second nationally behind Kansas according to Ken Pomeroy’s rankings — and the softness of the ACC, that would put them in the NCAA tournament conversation.

Said Pastner: “With Jose (Alvarado, the point guard back from injury who scored 18 points and made four assists against Duke), I think we’re a pretty good basketball team.”

Said Alvarado: “I know how (good) we really are. It’s just coming out little by little … We fell short tonight, but I promise you we’re going to be all right in this ACC.”

From here until the second week of March, Tech won’t play another team as good as Duke. It gets Notre Dame, Virginia, Louisville and N.C. State at McCamish Pavilion. Is it possible a team that hasn’t won more than two games in succession can run off five, six, seven in a row? Maybe. The Jackets stood in against the Devils — though we stipulate that this Duke is the least imposing Duke since 2016 — on a night when the visitors made 51.9 percent of its shots.

Tech stood in because it outrebounded Duke 39-30. The Jackets took 16 offensive rebounds. Trouble was, they scored only 14 second-chance points. James Banks played his best game as a collegian — 14 points, 15 rebounds and seven blocks, this coming against the imposing freshman Vernon Carey, among the nation’s 10 finest players — but he missed eight of 13 shots. Moses Wright took 12 rebounds; he missed 13 of 18 shots. Devoe made three baskets, none in the first half.

For all the good work the Jackets did, one Carey leap all but undid it. With 3:31 remaining, Cassius Stanley, yet another Duke freshman, made a free throw to put the Devils up by two. He missed the second. Carey followed it home to make it 66-62, a two-possession game. Said Banks: “On that free-throw line boxout, that was a big-time play. That’s what big-time players do.”

Well, yes. And there, in a game like this, was your difference. Duke loses Zion Williamson and RJ Barrett and Cam Reddish to the NBA and serves up Carey and Stanley as replacements. Tech hasn’t had a 5-star player since Derrick Favors in 2010, which was, not coincidentally, the last time it beat Duke.

Said Pastner: “We haven’t gotten that guy, so we have to have 5-star development.”

When you’re playing Duke’s 5-stars as coached by Krzyzewski, sometimes — most times — that’s not enough. Tech didn’t make a basket over the final 5:19. Again, though: In the watered-down world of college basketball, there aren’t many Dukes.

Over the next several weeks, the Jackets will have many chances to beat teams on its level. Assuming the pending appeal of an NCAA postseason ban remains pending — or is granted — on Selection Sunday, a program that hasn’t made the field since 2010 could hear its name called. At this moment, there aren’t six ACC teams better than this.

Said Banks: “Nobody in our locker room is happy we almost beat Duke. A statement loss is not a thing.”

And it isn’t. This would have been a big deal for Pastner and his team, but it slipped away. The silver lining: If Tech keeps playing the way it did Wednesday, it could/should win enough games to make March interesting.

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