Georgia Tech didn’t bring its usual defensive pressure to McCamish Pavilion and nearly met disaster Sunday night. The Yellow Jackets defeated Bethune-Cookman 68-65, but, playing their poorest defensive game of the season, didn’t secure the game until the final buzzer.
“Obviously, nobody needs to generate energy for us,” coach Josh Pastner said. “We’ve got to generate it for ourselves. We’ve got to do that through defense. That’s what we’ve got to do in the first half. We just didn’t defend like we needed to.”
Guard Michael Devoe’s drive and and-one free throw broke a 65-65 tie with seven seconds remaining and provided the winning margin. Bethune-Cookman guard Leon Redd’s 3-point try at the buzzer bounced off the rim, allowing the Jackets to avoid going to overtime at home against a team that finished in the bottom 10 percentile of RPI last season.
It averted what would have been a disaster for a team that is trying to protect its NCAA tournament resume while playing without indispensable point guard Jose Alvarado (out with an ankle) and transfer guard Jordan Usher, who becomes eligible on Dec. 18.
After taking the lead for the first time (38-36) at the 18:55 mark of the second half on a reverse layup by Devoe, the Jackets tried to free themselves of the Wildcats, but were unable. They shot 50 percent from the field in the second half, but were 9-for-19 from the free-throw line and turned the ball over eight times.
With Bethune-Cookman slowing down offensively but continuing to score on second-chance baskets, Tech’s largest lead of the game was four points.
“Give Bethune-Cookman credit,” Pastner said. “Look, they’re a good team. They were picked to win their league (MEAC).”
Devoe delivered in the end, scoring a game-tying basket on a layup with 3:12 to play (63-63) and a go-ahead score with a drive at the 1:35 mark (65-53). But on Tech’s next possession, he gave Bethune-Cookman an opening with an ill-advised post-entry pass to forward Moses Wright that was stolen by forward Cletrell Pope, who then scored on a putback dunk with 28 seconds left to tie the game at 65.
That set the stage for Devoe to drive on Pope, draw contact and bank a soft shot off the glass for the basket and foul with seven seconds left. Devoe’s free throw was good, and Webb missed a 3-pointer at the buzzer.
Devoe finished with a game-high 27 points, following games of 22, 22, 34 and 12 points in Tech’s first four games. Pastner dwelt on Devoe’s single rebound and late-game turnover, but acknowledged that “he’s made great strides from his freshman to his sophomore year, there’s no question about that.”
Tech narrowly avoided what would have challenged for the most humbling defeat of Pastner’s tenure, a result that would have been comparable with its December 2017 defeat (also on Dec. 1) to Grambling State. Just 12 days before that game, Tech also struggled to beat the same Bethune-Cookman team, 65-62.
“I’ve got unbelievable respect for Georgia Tech and coach Pastner, but we came in here to try and get a W and give ourselves a chance down the stretch,” Bethune-Cookman coach Ryan Ridder said. “Unfortunately, we just didn’t make enough plays on that defensive side late.”
Tech, a team that prides itself on its defensive effort and came into the game ranked 28th nationally in defensive efficiency, fell behind by as many as 10 points as the Wildcats came out hot and also working the offensive glass.
“We didn’t have the same energy to start,” Pastner said. “There was no excuse for that.”
For the game, Bethune-Cookman took down 20 offensive rebounds out of 42 available rebounds, enabling the Wildcats to take 68 shots to Tech’s 50.
Pope, the MEAC defensive player of the year last season and also his league’s preseason player of the year this season, scored 20 points with 19 rebounds, 11 on the offensive end. He was undaunted in squaring off with Tech center James Banks, who collected eight blocks to go with 10 rebounds and 12 points. (Banks did not start due to what Pastner called “an internal matter,” but played 28 minutes.)
“He’s just relentless,” Riddle said of Pope. “When the shot goes up, it’s like an all-you-can-eat buffet. He sees that out there and he just wants to get as much as he can. He was special (Sunday) for us.”
“His thing was just an energy deal,” Pastner said. “He just plays hard. He’s a rebounder. That’s what he does.”
While Tech shot 52 percent from the field (26 for 50) and held down its turnovers to a reasonable 13, Pastner still lamented Alvarado’s absence. He is expected out for the next two games — home contests against Nebraska and Syracuse — before a planned return for the road trip to Kentucky Dec. 14.
“There’s things that don’t show up in the box score,” Pastner said. “His leadership on the floor, winning 50/50 balls. He’s our best guard rebounder, cracking back. Like when shots are up, he’s just going and hitting the bigs. There’s things that just don’t show up (in the box score) that set the tone and energy for our team.”
Without Alvarado to run the offense, Tech had 12 assists on 26 baskets, well below the 60 percent assisted basket rate that Pastner sets as a goal. Having the burden of running the point, guard Bubba Parham’s scoring streak continued, as he scored six points on 2-for-7 shooting, including 0-for-2 from 3-point range.
Tech was also 14-for-25 from the free-throw line. After shooting 68.9 percent last season — 239th in Division I — the Jackets came into the game Sunday at 63.8 percent — 297th in the country.
Pastner said that he has “tried everything” to improve free-throw shooting, but was at a loss.
“I don’t really have a solution other than we’ve just got to make ’em,” he said.
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