There were 11-1/2 minutes remaining in the second half, and Jose Alvarado’s hands were clasped over his head. He wore a look of bewilderment on his face. The Georgia Tech guard had been called for his fourth foul, which was his primary source of confusion, and when an official walked by as the game went to a media timeout, Alvarado asked for an explanation, his palms raised.
But beyond that, the Yellow Jackets were unable to stop Notre Dame in their first-round game of the ACC Tournament, and he was contributing to the outcome by not being able to make a basket. Tech rallied late, but ultimately took defeat, ending the season with a 78-71 loss to the Fighting Irish on Tuesday afternoon.
“They came out and we were on our heels, and I played probably one of the worst games of my life in a big-time tournament, and I owe it to my teammates,” said Alvarado, sitting at his locker in the Spectrum Center, his head down. “I don’t know how I’m going to pay it back, but I’m going to just try and get their trust back and keep working on my game.”
After winning their final two games of the regular season and three of their final five, their performance boosted by Alvarado’s strong form, the Jackets seemed a candidate to, at the least, win Tuesday as the No. 10 seed over the No. 15 Irish. However, Notre Dame grabbed hold of the game early.
Moving the ball in and out of the Tech zone to create shots at the basket and from 3-point range, Notre Dame lit up the Jackets in the first half. A 13-3 run gave the Irish a 33-21 lead with 7:42 remaining in the first half. They finished the half up 52-32, shooting 58.1 percent from the field and 63.6 percent from the 3-point range (7-for-11).
This was the same team that had lost seven games in a row and scored 53 points in its last regular-season game, a loss to Pittsburgh that determined the bottom seed in the tournament. And Notre Dame’s opponent (that is to say, Tech) had entered the game ranked fifth nationally in 3-point field-goal defense at 29.1 percent.
The Jackets weren’t playing poorly on offense in the half – shooting 43.3 percent from the field with only two turnovers – but couldn’t stop the Irish, whose hot shooting forced Pastner to give up the Jackets’ bread-and-butter 1-3-1 zone and play man defense.
“We haven’t played a half like that all year,” Notre Dame coach Mike Brey said.
Said Pastner, “We failed the first half.”
The Jackets finally got rolling after the Notre Dame lead crested at 21 points with 15:50 to play, with forward Moses Wright carrying the banner. The sophomore scored 18 points in the second half on 9-for-12 shooting, totaling a game-high and career-high 25 points. Wright, who was inconsistent and lacking much in the way of an offensive game through much of the season, was confident and aggressive going to the basket for lay-ins and jump hooks. He ends the season with four double-figure scoring games in Tech’s final five games.
The Jackets closed to 72-69 with 1:06 left when forward Khalid Moore dropped a 3-pointer from the corner on a feed from center James Banks, capping an 8-0 run. However, Notre Dame center John Mooney answered with a jumper over Wright for a 74-69 lead and then Wright missed in the lane with 33 seconds left, which began to seal the game for Notre Dame. The Irish will move on to play No. 7 seed Louisville on Wednesday night.
“We found a way to get back in,” Pastner said. “We just dug ourselves such a deep hole that it was hard to dig out of.”
Alvarado, who shook off a slump to average 18.3 points and shoot 49.3 percent from the field in Tech’s final six regular-season games, was 1-for-8 from the field for three points, though he had five assists against one turnover. As Tech’s most essential player, it wasn’t enough.
“I just didn’t think he had his same fight, energy level that he usually has,” Pastner said.
Pastner’s third season ends at 14-18, which is the same record as Notre Dame. Tech has failed to advance past the first round in each of the past three ACC tournaments.
It was an unsatisfying, if familiar, conclusion to a season that had unraveled with a seven-game losing streak before the Jackets rallied with their best play at the end of the regular season. Before the game, Pastner spoke of the importance to the team to get to Wednesday. It will have to wait.
“It’s hard,” Alvarado said. “I was really thinking about (how) we’re going on a run. We were on a good two-game winning streak and we just fell short and the crazy part, tomorrow, there’s no more games. The season’s over. So the best thing I can do now is just try to keep my head up with my guys and get a lot of work in the offseason.”
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