Georgia Tech forward Evan Cole scored a career-high 16 points in the Yellow Jackets' 79-63 win over USC Upstate Wednesday evening at McCamish Pavilion. (Danny Karnik/Georgia Tech Athletics)

Georgia Tech finishes non-conference play with win over USC Upstate

Georgia Tech may not quite yet merit classification as an offensive juggernaut, but the Yellow Jackets are at least moving in the right direction.

For the second consecutive game, Tech played effective offense (at least for most of the game) and will go into ACC play with some good feeling about its ability to put the ball through the rim. The Jackets swamped USC Upstate in the second half to close out non-conference play with a 79-63 win over the Spartans Wednesday night at McCamish Pavilion.

USC Upstate, a middling team from the Big South Conference with a first-year coach, became Tech’s second consecutive victim, following Kennesaw State, which Tech (8-5) beat 87-57 on December 28. Cooler heads will note that USC Upstate is now 5-10 and the Owls are 3-12.

“Good win,” coach Josh Pastner said. “We found a way to get a win. Our start was a little sluggish, but we defended. We found ways to obviously get the win, but it was through our defense.”

The catalysts on Wednesday were USC Upstate’s errant shooting (7-for-31 from 3-point range, despite a steady dose of open looks) that led to transition opportunities and Tech’s effective ball movement. The Jackets began with a relaxed pace, repeatedly allowing possessions to languish into the final seconds of the shot, often resulting in clunky attempts at the basket. Further, Tech seemed disjointed, throwing away possessions with bad passes and amassing missed shots.

In its first 27 possessions, through about the first 16 minutes, the Jackets turned the ball over nine times, shot two airballs (one, somehow, on a reverse layup) and went into possession No. 28 tied at 21 with the Spartans. The Jackets finally found their footing, scoring in transition and finding open shots earlier in the shot clock. They scored 12 points in their final six possessions to go into halftime up 33-25.

The pattern continued after halftime. In the Jackets’ first 20 possessions that weren’t killed by turnovers, Tech got a shot up or was fouled within the first 15 seconds of the shot clock 16 times. Those possessions generated 22 points. The other four created two.

“I think the biggest thing was just playing hard,” forward Evan Cole said. “I think we came out a little bit slow. Once we kind of got in the groove of things, we turned up our intensity, we were able to play harder and run up the score a little bit.”

Such directness may be Tech’s hope once ACC play begins. As the Jackets’ results against power-conference opposition might suggest – 1-3 against Tennessee, Northwestern, Arkansas and Georgia while shooting a combined 35.5 percent from the field – efficient offense may not be the Jackets’ hallmark this season. As such, Pastner has made scoring in the first 10 to 12 seconds of the shot clock a high priority, particularly after defensive stops, because of his team’s offensive limitations.

“Because our defense has been so good and we’ve been able to get stops, I felt like we’re not taking advantage of that,” he said. “We’re not able to get transition baskets at all and we’re getting all these stops.”

In the second half, Tech scored 46 points while making 17 of 28 attempts (60.7 percent). Of the 17 baskets, 13 were assisted. In the wins over Kennesaw State and USC Upstate, Tech has 51 assists on 64 field goals (80 percent). Assists on 60 percent of field goals is a high rate.

“That’s a great stat,” Pastner said.

Cole, who began the season in the starting lineup but then missed seven games with an ankle sprain, was instrumental in the second-half surge.

The sophomore scored 13 of his career-high 16 points after halftime, working himself free on cuts to the basket for easy scores. He added five rebounds and two assists in 19 minutes of play. Cole is a candidate to get back into the starting five when the Jackets open ACC play on Saturday at home against Wake Forest.

“It was tough, coming from working my tail off all fall to secure a starting spot and then I get hurt and then you’re kind of on the bench and you’re like, I want to be out there,” Cole said. “It’s good to be back.”

Guard Michael Devoe has also showed good form of late, matching his career high with 14 points against the Spartans and doling out six assists against no turnovers against Kennesaw State.

After missing six weeks in the preseason with a foot injury, “he’s getting caught up to where he was,” Pastner said.

A question is what does Tech’s uptick in play mean, given that it’s been gained against teams that are nowhere close to the caliber of team the Jackets will see once conference play begins? USC Upstate coach Dave Dickerson himself noted that the Jackets didn’t quite unseat a powerhouse, as the Spartans played seven freshmen Wednesday.

“Let’s keep things in context,” Dickerson said. “We’re a Big South team. I know Gardner-Webb came in here beat you guys earlier in the year, but Gardner-Webb is a team with juniors and seniors. I just don’t have that.”

Pastner would say that he doesn’t either. Ready or not, ACC play is on the doorstop.

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