Georgia Tech comes up short again, this time to No. 6 Louisville

Georgia Tech controlled the game early but gave way late, this time falling to No. 6 Louisville by a 68-64 score. (Courtesy of ACC)

The venue was different, the result the same.

In need of a slump-busting win, Georgia Tech controlled the game early but gave way late, this time falling to No. 6 Louisville Wednesday night by a 68-64 score.

“It’s kind of frustrating that we’re not winning at the end of the game,” guard Michael Devoe said. “We’ve got to put two halves together.”

It was the third loss in a row for the Yellow Jackets and fourth out of the past five since their energizing road win over North Carolina. Wednesday's defeat at the KFC Yum Center before an announced crowd of 15,001 followed the pattern of similarly competitive losses last week at home to Notre Dame and Virginia, not to mention Duke and Florida State in previous weeks.

Tech again demonstrated its capacity to challenge even the top teams in the ACC, but far less able to actually finish a game with the lead. Coach Josh Pastner’s assertion on Monday that Tech was better than its record and would just “get over the hump” if it could clean up its turnovers and defensive rebounding proved more prescient than he would have liked. The Jackets remained stationed at the hump’s base camp because of their shortcomings in both categories.

Tech shot a healthy 45.8% from the floor. This season, only No. 5 Florida State and No. 15 Kentucky have shot better against the Cardinals. But the Jackets turned the ball over 17 times and allowed Louisville to secure 14 offensive rebounds against Tech’s 25 defensive rebounds. The Cardinals converted those extra chances into a combined 28 points compared to the Jackets’ 16 points off turnovers and second-chance points, as Louisville turned it over just 10 times and permitted nine offensive rebounds.

“They had 28 points off those, and that’s the difference in the game right there,” Pastner said.

In so doing, Tech fell to 8-11 overall and 3-6 in the ACC. Louisville (16-3, 7-1) won despite being held to 41.4% shooting from the field. Tech has not been 8-11 after 19 games since the 2011-12 season, former coach Brian Gregory’s first year.

“From my chair, I know our guys have gotten better, they’ve improved, they’ve given me everything they have, and that’s all I can ask for,” Pastner said. “We’ve just got to keep competing and fighting and getting better.”

For all of their shortcomings, the Jackets still had a chance in the final minute to escape with the biggest road win of Pastner’s tenure.

After a furious last-minute rally and a defensive stop with 55 seconds remaining, Tech trailed 65-64. The Jackets had two possessions after that to take the lead or tie, but came up empty on both. First, guard Jose Alvarado missed a short jumper and forward Moses Wright was unable to put down a close-range try.

“I just rushed the shot,” Wright said. “If I had that shot back, I would have dunked it.”

After Louisville forward Malik Williams made one of two free throws to push the lead to 66-64 with 22.4 seconds left, Devoe had a 3-pointer for the lead with about 10 seconds remaining but was off the mark.

“It was a good shot, good look,” Devoe said. “I’ve just got to hit it.”

Williams finished off Tech with a pair of free throws with 7.4 seconds left.

“All you can ask for is a shot to tie or win the game late, and we had two opportunities and neither fell,” Pastner said.

Even as Tech controlled the game early, turnovers were limiting the Jackets. With center James Banks attacking the offensive glass, Devoe (playing on an injured left foot) having success driving to the basket and Alvarado hitting a pair of 3-pointers and running the offense, the Jackets took a 38-32 lead into halftime, creating angst among the Louisville fans not expecting resistance from Tech. Only two teams this season have put the Cardinals in a bigger halftime hole — Florida State and Kentucky.

“I said it before we played them,” Louisville coach Chris Mack said. “They have two of the better guards in the league that I’ve seen so far, and I thought they completely controlled the game in the first half, Alvarado and Devoe.”

However, the Jackets’ 10 first-half turnovers prevented them from getting farther ahead. The problem didn’t get rectified in the second half, and the Jackets’ defensive-rebounding effort didn’t improve, either.

Tech took a 43-32 lead early in the second half when Devoe hit a transition 3-pointer for its biggest advantage of the game, but the Cardinals charged back as the Jackets strung together clumsy possessions that Louisville exploited with scoring opportunities in transition.

“I feel like that’s when we got a little complacent and we relaxed a little bit instead of actually putting our feet on their necks,” Wright said.

Tech strained to stay ahead, but the Cardinals caught the Jackets at 47 and then surged past.

Tech took a 52-50 lead at the 9:20 mark on a reverse by Banks, but then Louisville seized the game with a 15-2 run to go ahead 65-54 with five minutes to play. Seven second-half turnovers and 33.3% shooting from the field helped do in the Jackets.

It was all too familiar for Jackets fans. Tech went into the game second in the ACC in field-goal percentage at 46.7%  but also last in the league in turnovers per game (16.6).

“That’s just been an Achilles heel for us,” Pastner said of the turnovers. “We are doing everything humanly possible that you can think of to try to correct and solve that problem.”

The game began to slip out of the Jackets’ grasp at about the eight-minute mark. Louisville scored on a second-chance basket for a 54-52 lead, its first lead since the fifth minute of the game. Banks missed a point-blank shot to tie, and then fouled Williams at the other end trying to break up an alley-oop try. Williams made his first free throw, missed his second and Louisville retained possession when the ball went out of bounds off Tech. Williams scored on a lay-in after Tech’s defense broke down for a 57-52 lead.

“We need Moses and James to be able to handle the physicality a little bit better than they’ve handled it the last two games,” Pastner said.

The 65-54 advantage provided enough margin for the Cardinals to withstand a 10-0 run by the Jackets. Devoe scored seven consecutive points and slipped a pass in the lane to Banks for a dunk that cut the lead to 65-64 with 1:20 to play, setting up Tech’s two final missed opportunities.

Alvarado scored 13 points on 4-for-11 shooting and set a career high with 10 rebounds to lead all players, but also was charged with six turnovers.

Devoe, who was in a walking boot on Monday and again after the game, led Tech with 21 points on 7-for-14 shooting. Alvarado offered his typically hard-nosed play, getting matched up with Louisville’s 6-foot-8 forward Jodan Nwora as the Jackets mostly played man-to-man defense. Giving up eight inches, Alvarado flustered Nwora, who scored 10 points on 3-for-11 shooting.

“Jose’s a dog, so I didn’t expect anything less,” Wright said.

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