With the student section nearly empty, McCamish Pavilion perhaps a quarter full and a fairly anonymous opponent on the court, Georgia Tech didn’t have much to stoke the fires.
However, Georgia Tech produced its best half of the young season in a 72-44 win over Texas Rio Grande Valley Wednesday night. The Yellow Jackets led 42-11 at the half and prevented UTRGV from scoring a basket for the final 16 and a half minutes of the first half.
“For the first half, we had a good defensive performance,” coach Josh Pastner said. “We really guarded.”
After UTRGV scored at the 16:32 of the first half to cut the lead to 7-5, the Vaqueros missed 19 consecutive field-goal attempts and turned the ball over 11 times, losing possession nine times via Tech steals.
“I think everything they did (Wednesday) bothered us,” Vaqueros coach Lew Hill said. “I think their length bothered us and they keep bringing those 6-9 guys at us. That’s the difference when you’re playing the ACC teams and the WAC teams.”
A pause for context. UTRGV finished 15-17 last season and in fifth place in the WAC. Its RPI was 234. Further, the Vaqueros were playing their second road game in three nights and were clearly not at their best.
This is a team that Tech ought to defeat with ease. That said, UTRGV hadn’t scored fewer than 53 points against anybody in Hill’s three seasons prior to Wednesday, according to sports-reference.com.
Further, it was the lowest scoring output for a Tech opponent since the 2012-13 season. The Vaqueros’ 11 points in the first half was the second lowest scoring output for a Tech opponent since 1950, and their field-goal percentage of 22.6 percent was the second lowest for a Tech opponent in the same span.
UTRGV shouldn’t be mistaken for an ACC team, but it still managed to shoot 42 percent against Oklahoma earlier this season.
In Pastner’s first season, the Jackets finished the season ranked sixth in the country in adjusted defensive efficiency (KenPom), fortified by ACC defensive player of the year Ben Lammers. The season is only four games old, but Pastner has similar aims for this young team. Friday’s performance – in the first half, at any rate – provided more evidence that it’s possible.
“Defense wins games,” guard Curtis Haywood said. “That’s everybody’s motto, (or) should be. That’s what we’re proud about and that’s what we go on.”
Against UTRGV, Tech challenged the dribble, altered shots, jumped in passing lanes and threw the Vaqueros off with its mix of defenses. Haywood, long-armed and quick, had four steals in the first half alone (and the whole game), tying his career high.
He added seven points (on 2-for-4 shooting from 3-point range), seven rebounds and six assists. (The assist total tied a career high, both set a year ago against the same Vaqueros.)
When he was informed on the bench, “I’m like, wow,” Haywood said. “I’m trying to get a triple-double now. Then I came out and I’m like, ah, dang. I’m just trying to play. I’m just trying to do everything I can to help my team win.”
His game was particularly on display in a sequence about seven minutes in. With Tech in a 2-3 zone, UTRGV guard Greg Bowie dribbled on the wing against guard Jose Alvarado at the top of the zone. As he dribbled past Alvarado, Haywood pounced on Bowie, using his long reach to poke the ball away for the steal.
At the other end of the court, guard Michael Devoe penetrated from the top of the key and swung the ball to the right corner to forward Moses Wright, who sent a touch pass to Haywood on the right wing. With the defense scrambling, Haywood dribbled to the top of the key and whipped the ball to Devoe, who had backpedaled to the left corner. Shooting in rhythm, Devoe bottomed out a 3-pointer on his way to a game-high 14 points.
“I’ve always thought he was a good, underrated player,” said Hill, who was aware of Haywood as an assistant coach at Oklahoma prior to taking the UTRGV job. Haywood is from Oklahoma City. “Solid defender. Really could shoot the ball. Smart, heady player. Thought he did a good job (Wednesday).”
In four games, Haywood is averaging 10 points and has 15 assists, seven steals and 11 rebounds and is shooting 44 percent from 3-point range (8-for-20). There’s a long way to go, but after missing the final 11 games of last season with a shin injury that required surgery to repair, Haywood has shown marked improvement from his freshman season.
“He’s playing at a high level now,” Pastner said.
After the 42-11 halftime lead, the Jackets relented. UTRGV outscored Tech in the second half 33-30 as the Jackets were 1-for-11 from 3-point range and the Vaqueros actually began to make baskets. (The game might have been closer had UTRGV not been egregiously inaccurate from the line, making 16 of 33 free throws.)
The crispness that Tech showed in the first half dissipated as both teams lost their structure in the blowout. Playing with full effort has been a challenge thus far.
Pastner attributed it to the youth of the team, “but they’ve got to execute it on the floor, not having the letdown. Again, it’s easier said than done. Because they’re 18-to-22-year-old young guys and it’s just part of human nature.”
Interestingly, in the free-for-all that was the second half, Haywood took only one shot in nine minutes of play. He actually only took three in the first half, making two 3-pointers. Haywood professed to not care.
“I could have shot more,” he said. “My dad’ll call me and say, ‘You know, you only took four shots.’ ‘Yeah, I know.’ We’re winning, and we’re still playing hard. That’s all I care about.”
For the first time in his career, Alvarado did not start in a game he was available to play. He checked into the game at the 14:08 mark of the first half. Pastner called it an internal matter and said he expected Alvarado to start in Friday’s home game against Prairie View A&M.