Georgia Tech’s defense scratches out win over Clemson

Defense provided the path Tuesday night for Georgia Tech and the means to end a five-game losing streak to Clemson.

Holding the Tigers to 41.4% shooting from the field, Tech beat Clemson for the first time since the teams’ first meeting in the 2016-17 season in a 68-59 win over the Tigers at McCamish Pavilion.

“We just got outplayed,” said Clemson coach Brad Brownell, who was 16-4 all-time against the Jackets before Tuesday. “They played better on both ends.”

The Jackets picked up an important win in their efforts to avoid the first round of the ACC tournament for the first time in coach Josh Pastner’s tenure. With the win, Tech is 14-14 overall and 8-9 in the league, tied with Clemson (15-12, 8-9) and N.C. State for seventh in the conference with three league games remaining. Tech holds head-to-head tiebreakers over both. Tech will play Clemson in the regular-season finale for both teams March 6.

Teams 10 through 15 in the standings play in the first round of the tournament, which begins March 10 in Greensboro, N.C.

The Tigers rely heavily on their 3-point shooting, and had won their past three games by making 50% of their 3-point tries. Tuesday, with Tech going to a man-to-man defense to better challenge the perimeter, Clemson was 2-for-20 from behind the arc for a season-low 10%.

Tech defends the 3 about as well as it does anything, relying on the effort of long-armed players such as Michael Devoe, James Banks and Moses Wright to challenge shots.

“Defensively, they did a nice job guarding us,” Brownell said. “They started in some zone, we were pretty good against the zone and then they went man and we had a hard time.”

In the teams’ first meeting of the season, both started sluggishly, clogging game flow with turnovers.

“It was kind of a mucky type of game because both teams are just physical,” Pastner said.

Tech broke away at the end of the first half with a 9-2 run to take a 34-29 halftime lead. It was perhaps coincidence, but the Jackets made the run after Pastner was unusually vocal with referee Ted Valentine for two charge calls he made against Bubba Parham and Jordan Usher. In the final minutes, Banks put down a dunk over Clemson forward Hunter Tyson, putting a knee into Tyson’s chest as he rose up. He had another dunk after Parham drove and slipped him a pass at the basket. (Banks was wearing prescription goggles Tuesday for the first time after having issues with his contact lenses.)

Pastner called the officiating team of Valentine, Ron Groover and Pat Driscoll a “high-level crew,” though those did not seem to be the words he was using after the charge calls.

“I would bet nine times out of 10, they were probably right and I was wrong,” Pastner said. “In the heat of the moment, you’re going to just coach. And plus, when I’m getting upset, it’s G-rated. It’s good for Sesame Street, I promise you.”

Clemson closed the halftime deficit to tie at 36, mirroring post-halftime letdowns by the Jackets in the two previous games, a win at Wake Forest and a loss at Syracuse.

But the Jackets responded, with a dunk from Wright on a feed from Devoe and then a 3-pointer by Devoe on the next possession for a 41-36 lead at the 16:18 mark when Clemson fell asleep defensively. Tech was able to maintain the lead for the remainder of the game.

“One of the assistant coaches told me always to have my feet set, and I guess they were changing into a zone and they left me open, so I just knocked it down,” Devoe said.

Devoe played one of his better games of the season, scoring 14 points with a career-high eight assists and six rebounds. Pastner said it was Devoe’s best defensive game of his career.

Another important sequence for Tech unfolded after guard Tevin Mack hit a jumper to cut the lead to 47-45 with 11:24 remaining.

After a series of empty possessions, Devoe took down a defensive rebound and threw ahead to Wright for the dunk. That was the start of a 14-3 run that pushed the lead to 61-48 – Devoe and guard Jose Alvarado both deposited 3-pointers in the stretch — to put the game away.

“We couldn’t get the big basket to kind of take the lead and grab a hold of the game,” Brownell said. “Credit Georgia Tech for that. They played well at opportune times when they needed to. When we made a run or two, they were able to extend it.”

Alvarado led with 19 points, including 3-for-5 shooting from 3-point range. Alvarado left the game in the first half with a left elbow injury, briefly going into the locker room, but played the rest of the game without incident. When he fell, he had a flashback to his freshman season, when he suffered a season-ending dislocation of the same elbow.

“I was like, oh, man,” Alvarado said. “But, it was just more of a fear, a scare for my elbow. But I’ll be fine. It’s just a bruise.”