Georgia Tech forward James Banks, shown here against Gardner-Webb, led the Jackets with 16 points in the Yellow Jackets' 72-60 loss to Clemson January 16, 2019. (Danny Karnik/Georgia Tech Athletics)

Shorthanded Jackets fall hard to Clemson

The losses were many when Georgia Tech traveled up I-85 for its perennial loss on Clemson’s home court, this time a 72-60 defeat to the Tigers Wednesday night at Littlejohn Coliseum.

After riding up with the team on Tuesday, forward Abdoulaye Gueye was sent back before the game with what coach Josh Pastner obliquely called “an unspecified medical injury” that he said could be season-ending. Guard Brandon Alston, the Yellow Jackets’ top bench player, did not make the trip due to what Pastner said was a personal reason that will be treated on a day-to-day basis. And, for good measure, guard Jose Alvarado was taken out of the game with a groin injury and was seen walking with difficulty afterwards.

The Jackets, hoping to build on their road upset of Syracuse on Saturday, were little match for a Clemson team that had started ACC play 0-3. Tech (10-7 overall, 2-2 ACC) lost, remarkably, its 14th consecutive game on Clemson’s home court. Clemson (11-6, 1-3) looked far more like the team that advanced to the Sweet 16 last season than it had in its first three ACC games.

“They punched us right in the mouth,” Alvarado said.

Twice losing the ball on shot-clock violations in the first four possessions and letting Clemson guard Marcquise Reed get hot at the other end, the Jackets fell behind 14-0 in the first five minutes. Without Gueye or Alston and his team making mistakes at both ends, Pastner sped through substitutions like a couch potato flipping through channels, making nine lineup changes in the first seven minutes in search for someone who could break his team out of its torpor.

The Jackets made a push at the end of the first half with a 10-0 run to close the gap at halftime to 35-30, but then started the second half with another shot-clock violation, an airballed jumper, followed not long by a bad pass that led to a turnover and then another turnover on the dribble in the next possessions. Ahead by five at halftime, Clemson extended the lead to 47-33 before the 15-minute mark, enough of a cushion to withstand the Jackets regaining their footing.

“I sensed it in (the start of) both halves that we were just lethargic, and I don’t know why,” Pastner said.

Clemson scored from all over the floor, on second-chance baskets created by beating the Jackets on the glass, on transition baskets produced from turnovers and on open shots generated by ball movement to scramble the defense. In the first five minutes of both halves, Clemson outscored Tech 26-5, while the Jackets won the remaining 30 minutes 55-46.

“The difference in the game was the way we started the first and second half, just, bottom line,” Pastner said.

The compromised lineup had to play some role. After Gueye had responded so well to being returned to the starting lineup in the win over Syracuse, combining with forward James Banks for 26 points on 11-for-17 shooting, Pastner built a game plan for Clemson to feature both players again and practiced Monday and Tuesday with that double-post pairing. Pastner found out Tuesday night as the team was arriving to Clemson that Gueye would not be able to play. The matter was apparently related to the muscle cramps that forced him out of the previous two games, Virginia Tech last Wednesday and Syracuse on Saturday.

With Gueye unavailable, Pastner and his staff cobbled together a new plan that was implemented at the walk-through Wednesday before the game. Forward Evan Cole started, but was ineffective and played only seven minutes. Without Gueye and Alston, Pastner dipped deeper into the bench, giving forward Sylvester Ogbonda seven minutes, forward Kristian Sjolund five and guard Shembari Phillips 10. The three had played a total of six minutes in the first three ACC games. Along with Gueye, Tech surely could have also used Alston, the Jackets’ third-leading scorer at 9.6 points per game.

“We had some good stuff (in the game plan),” Pastner said. “I thought we were going to be ready to go, and sometimes the ball doesn’t bounce the way that you need it to bounce.”

Tech’s lineup issues aside, the Jackets’ response to the change was not ideal. The Jackets had only seven assists on their 21 field goals, evidence of a shortage of ball movement and effective cutting. Banks scored a team-high 16 points, but had only one rebound, almost seven below his season average.

The Jackets allowed Clemson to shoot 50.9 percent from the field and permit Reed to score a career-high 30 points.

“Coach (Pastner) told us that this game is going to be a desperate game, so they’re going to come out with all they can, and we knew that, and they just came out like they were desperate and we didn’t,” Alvarado said.

The Jackets, though, now face potential setbacks greater than one conference loss. Gueye is an integral part of the rotation, either with or behind Banks. He is an energy player and can be a capable scorer. Pastner said he would know more by Friday – the next time he addresses media – but spoke as though he might not be back soon.

“I don’t know how long he’ll be out,” Pastner said. “He could be out the whole season. I just don’t know.”

Alston has become a more consistent scorer and has averaged 21.4 minutes this season. And if Alvarado is out, even just for the home game Saturday against Louisville, that could be a major hit. The sophomore leads the team in scoring and assists, is the principal ballhandler and imbues the team with his toughness.

“I just tweaked a muscle,” he said. “I think I’ll be fine. I’m going to get treatment when I get back to Atlanta. I’ll be fine, though.”

The start of the ACC season has provided unpredictable outcomes across the league, and the Jackets have offered their contributions, scoring 92 points in a win over Wake Forest, holding No. 9 Virginia Tech to its season scoring low in a 52-49 loss, pulling off the upset of Syracuse and then being Clemson’s first ACC defeat.

And now, Pastner and the Jackets face even more uncertainty.

“We’re going to have to adjust and deal with it, and prepare that, regarding ‘A.D.’ (Gueye), that he might not be there,” Pastner said. “So we’ve got to figure it out and take the next couple days to readjust back to who we are.”

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