Georgia Tech punches hole in struggling Virginia Tech

Monday, Georgia Tech coach Josh Pastner wished aloud. His team had improved its offensive play in recent weeks, but its performance at the other end had lapsed as more time was devoted to offense in practice. It led the Yellow Jackets to a place where they were scoring more efficiently, but continuing to languish in the bottom third of the ACC standings.

“If we can just be more consistent defensively and stay where we are offensively, then we could have a good finish in these next few weeks,” Pastner said.

For at least one night, his wish was granted. Against a young and struggling Virginia Tech team, the Yellow Jackets exploded on offense and vigorously challenged on defense, producing a 76-57 win Tuesday night at McCamish Pavilion.

“They flattened our nose,” Virginia Tech coach Mike Young said. “We didn’t respond particularly well.”

Georgia Tech dominated, going into the half up 38-18 and pushing the lead to 30 points midway through the second half. While the opponent was not the most imposing, it nonetheless rated among the most thorough ACC wins of Pastner’s four-year tenure.

“I thought we played really well,” Pastner said. “I thought we had a complete game, both ends of the floor.”

It was undoubtedly a cleansing win, as the Jackets had lost four of their previous five ACC games, each by eight points or fewer. In each, the Jackets managed prolonged stretches of winning basketball only to be undone by turnovers, poor shooting, ineffective 3-point defense or some other shortcoming. Tuesday’s win offered more evidence of Pastner’s unrelentingly communicated message that his team is improving, regardless of what the record (11-12 overall, 5-7 ACC) might indicate.

“I swear, I just wanted to win this game so bad,” said point guard Jose Alvarado, who led the way with a team-high 20 points on 8-for-14 shooting with six assists against one turnover.

Shooting 52.7% from the field (second highest mark for the season) and 44.4% from outside the 3-point arc (season high), the Jackets extinguished a six-game losing streak to Virginia Tech, a slide that began in former coach Brian Gregory’s final two seasons. Pastner was able to empty the bench, a rarity in ACC play.

“It was a great win for all of us,” said guard Michael Devoe, who returned from a three-game absence after being out with a foot injury.

Georgia Tech was led out of the gate by a furious first-half scoring effort by Alvarado. Attacking the basket off high ball screens set by center James Banks and forward Moses Wright and dialing in from 3-point range, Alvarado scored 19 of his 20 in the first half as the Jackets seized control of the game with a 15-2 run that pushed the lead to 24-9 at the 7:10 mark of the first half.

“He had an awful good game,” Young said of Alvarado. “The high ball screen was certainly effective (Tuesday).”

Alvarado was 8-for-9 from the field and 3-for-3 from 3-point range in the first half. He single-handedly outscored the Hokies (19-18) in the first 20 minutes.

“Surprised?” Alvarado asked in response to a question about his hot shooting. He then chuckled in a “don’t be silly” sort of way. “No, but it was pretty cool. It’s, like, basketball, sometimes it just goes your way, and it went my way the first half.”

The junior has reached 20 points in four of Tech’s past six games. He also made one of the highlight plays of the game in the second half. After Virginia Tech inbounded in its backcourt following a held ball, Alvarado snuck up behind guard Jalen Cone as he dribbled upcourt and picked his pocket, then passed to wing Jordan Usher for a layup and an and-one free throw.

“A funny story,” Alvarado said. “I’ve been doing that since I was in middle school. I just didn’t want to try it in college because I knew if I messed up, I knew I was going to get in trouble with coach (Pastner). But it worked (Tuesday). It felt good and, hey, it worked. It went my way. That’s pretty cool.”

Alvarado had plenty of reason for good humor. After the game and his media session, Alvarado left the arena to attend the birth of his first child, with girlfriend Flor Castillo.

Virginia Tech (14-9, 5-7) lost its fourth consecutive game. A team that relies on six freshmen in its rotation, the Hokies shot 38.2% from the field as the Jackets’ signature 1-3-1 zone defense was active in closing down space on shooters and keeping the Hokies from finding their rhythm. Virginia Tech was twice called for shot-clock violations in the first half.

“They guarded us the way we would like to guard them,” Young said. “They were up under our chin.”

In his four seasons, Pastner has taken pride in how his team has consistently defended the 3-point shot, but the Jackets had slipped this season as he devoted more practice time to improving the offense. They entered the game 12th in league games in defending the 3 (34.6%) after finishing second last season (30.2%). Pastner said the team honed in on the defense in Monday’s practice and Tuesday’s shootaround, “and it paid dividends (Tuesday), and we really defended at a high level.”

Virginia Tech, a team heavily reliant upon the 3-point shot and accurate in shooting it, was foiled by the Jackets. The Hokies shot 4-for-23 from behind the arc (17.4%), their second-lowest rate of the season and less than half their season average (36.6%, second in the ACC). Freshman forward and leading scorer Landers Nolley, from nearby Langston Hughes High, had a rough night, scoring 10 points on 4-for-14 shooting, 1-for-9 from 3-point range.

“I thought our guys were really proactive in covering the areas that needed to be covered,” Pastner said.

In his return, Devoe scored 12 points on 5-for-9 shooting along with five rebounds and four assists against one turnover in 32 minutes. Forward Evan Cole sat out with a sprained ankle suffered in the shootaround.

“It felt amazing to go out there and play with my teammates again and just be able to help them contribute to the win,” Devoe said.

Georgia Tech, which came into the game eighth in the ACC in adjusted offensive efficiency (KenPom) after ranking last or second to last in Pastner’s first three seasons, ran as smoothly as it has all season, shooting effectively and turning the ball over 10 times, well under its season average of 15.9 per game, a trouble spot that Pastner has heavily emphasized. It followed the Jackets’ five-turnover effort in a loss on Saturday at Notre Dame.

It was Tech’s first ACC game in Pastner’s tenure in which the Jackets made more than half of their field-goal attempts, limited their opponent to 40% shooting and turned the ball over 10 or fewer times, according to the website Sports Reference. In fact, they had managed it only once in non-conference competition, in a win over Wofford in Dec. 2016 in Pastner’s first season. The coach of that team? Young, who was hired away from Wofford this past offseason to replace Buzz Williams (now at Texas A&M).

“They were obviously more aggressive, more connected, than my team was throughout the game,” Young said.