A favorite talking point of Georgia Tech coach Josh Pastner’s this season has been that college basketball is a guard’s game.
His bromide found credence Wednesday night in Joel Coliseum. With center James Banks spending much of the game on the bench in foul trouble and then fouling out with 9:49 left in the game, the Yellow Jackets were piloted to a win over Wake Forest by guards Jose Alvarado and Michael Devoe.
The pair combined for 46 points and nine assists against four turnovers, leading Tech to a win that was clunky at times, but also marked by winning contributions from all who chipped in in Banks’ stead.
“Me and Mike, we stepped up and we did what we’re supposed to do, and lead this team to a win,” Alvarado said.
The two took turns taking control of the game, Alvarado by finding contact on the dribble to earn trips to the free-throw line (he was 13-for-15 on free throws, setting career highs for makes and attempts) while Devoe scored on forays to the basket, finishing 9-for-14 from the field for a game-high 24 points.
It was Devoe’s highest scoring output since collecting 26 points in a win over Nebraska in the sixth game of the season.
“The only way to win games at this level, you’ve got to have great guard play, and (Wednesday), Jose Alvarado and Michael Devoe were high-level,” Pastner said. “Our guards were excellent. And Bubba Parham played very well. He didn’t make some shots, but he had zero turnovers, and so it’s a great win for the Jackets.”
Tech (13-13, 7-8 ACC) won back-to-back ACC games for the first time this season and also returned to .500 for the first time since it beat Boston College on Jan. 11 to get to 8-8. It kept alive the sliver of a possibility that the Jackets could earn some postseason opportunity.
The Jackets beat a Wake Forest team (11-15, 4-12) that hardly is a heavyweight, but that had managed wins over Clemson and North Carolina in its past two home games.
“That’s a big-time, big-time win for us, and we’ve got to try to continue when we play Saturday at Syracuse,” Alvarado said.
The Jackets have won three league games in a row only once in Pastner’s tenure, the second, third and fourth games of the 2017-18 season.
On Wednesday, the outcome was contested into the final minute. The Jackets took a 33-20 lead at the 3:49 mark of the first half, only for the Demon Deacons to rally at the end of the first half and then open the second half with a 9-0 run to take a 38-37 lead.
Banks’ absence complicated matters. He was benched with his second foul less than four minutes into the game and took his third at the 5:24 mark of the half. He was hit with No. 4 on the first possession of the second half, came back in at the 11:04 mark and didn’t make it two minutes before he took his fifth and final foul.
He was on the floor only 11 minutes, a season low. Whistles blew quite frequently inside Joel Coliseum. The trio of Brian Dorsey, Lee Cassell and Jeff Clark called a total of 51 fouls, the most in a game that Tech has played this season.
Wake Forest cut Tech’s lead to 53-52 after Banks fouled out, which is when Devoe asserted himself. He scored or assisted on scores on three of the next four possessions to keep the Demon Deacons at bay.
He took over again when the Jackets were hanging on to a 67-65 lead with 4:17 to play. On consecutive possessions, Devoe scored on a putback of his own miss, converted a traditional three-point play on the next possession and then made a pretty scoop high off the glass for a 74-69 lead with 2:46 to play.
“He’s just real crafty,” Wake Forest guard Chaundee Brown said. “He gets by people really easily. He’s not really fast, but he uses his size, at 6-5.”
Devoe’s surge gave the Jackets the margin to hold on when Wright fouled 21 seconds after Devoe’s scoop shot. With a lineup of Alvarado, Devoe, Parham, Jordan Usher and Evan Cole, the Jackets managed to run out the final 145 seconds with sufficient accuracy on free throws (10-for-14 in the final 1:40) and Usher and Cole holding down the glass.
“(Cole) was tough-minded. Him and Jordan Usher were really tough-minded late in the game,” Pastner said. “So I’m really proud of them both.”
Cole, playing 20 minutes off the bench, scored nine points with seven rebounds. Usher had 10 points, seven rebounds and two assists in 25 minutes. Wright had 14 points and seven rebounds, hitting a big 3-pointer with the shot clock running down to break a 56-all tie. Wright had made six of 27 3-point tries this season.
“He was open, I made the pass and he nailed it down,” Alvarado said. “He made me look even better.”
It called to mind a critical late-game possession in a Jan. 15 home loss to Notre Dame in which Wright took and missed a 3-pointer. Wednesday, the Jackets made the winning plays they have failed to make often this season. After losing six of its first eight ACC games decided by single digits, Tech has now won its past two.
Further, the Jackets did it with scant contributions from Banks, the Jackets’ leading rebounder and the ACC’s second-leading shot blocker.
“We got hurt there with some foul trouble, but we found a way to get it done,” Pastner said.
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