Georgia Tech squanders opportunity vs. St. John’s

Credit: Michael Reaves

Credit: Michael Reaves

Georgia Tech began its game against St. John’s poorly, played the middle portion with excellence, did not adequately respond to a momentum swing and then cemented defeat in its final possession, in the words of its coach, with a brain fart.

The Yellow Jackets also were again off the mark from 3-point range (4-for-21), an area that they are counting on to be a strength. Their seventh game of the season ended in defeat, 76-73 to the Red Storm on Saturday afternoon at the Hoophall Miami Invitational.

“We’ve got to win that one,” guard Brandon Alston said.

Tech (4-3) let a 16-point second-half lead slip away, done in by tentative play on offense and the fiery hot shooting of St. John’s guard Shamorie Ponds, who poured in 37 points, 21 after halftime. The Jackets squandered the chance to give St. John’s (7-0) its first defeat of the season.

“We got kind of complacent probably halfway through the second half,” said Alston, who scored 14 points and four rebounds, but also had two turnovers that led directly to St. John’s baskets. “They started to make some shots, we started to play a little tentative, not fast breaking enough as much. We’ve got to stay in attack mode.”

Tech was overwhelmed by the Red Storm’s speed early and trailed 20-12 at the 10-minute mark of the first half. However, the Jackets found a groove with their 1-3-1 zone defense, confounding the Red Storm possession after possession. After a St. John’s basket at the 7:25 mark, the Red Storm missed 12 consecutive field-goal tries while forward James Banks exploited his size advantage with an and-one basket in the post, a putback and a lay-in off a pick-and-roll. In his first career start, he finished with 14 points and 12 rebounds, his second double-double in a row.

Scoring in transition off St. John’s misses, Tech went on a 21-2 run to take a 38-26 lead with 37 seconds left in the first half before Ponds made a 3-pointer from half court at the buzzer. The lead reached 16 twice in the second half, the latter time with 15:06 remaining in the game. Forward Moses Wright was playing with confidence and purpose on his way to a season-high 12 points. Point guard Jose Alvarado was running the floor for the Jackets.

“They really took the momentum away from us,” St. John’s coach Chris Mullin said.

Tech looked like it was going to gain some credibility and confidence. And then Ponds, the NBA prospect who made the half-court buzzer beater, began to glow hot, scoring from all over the floor. His confidence seemed to infect his teammates, and their defensive pressure bothered the Jackets, who repeatedly went deep into the shot clock before forcing up tough shots.

Ahead 53-40 with 13:15 to play, the Jackets tried to ward off St. John’s but finally gave up the lead on two Ponds free throws with 3:31 left, falling behind 67-66. The Jackets trailed the rest of the way. It was the largest lead given up in coach Josh Pastner’s tenure, now in its third season.

“We didn’t respond well,” Pastner said. “We kept talking about it – it’s a game of runs.”

It was, perhaps, another lesson for a young team. Saturday’s game at American Airlines Arena was the second of the week against a high-major team. In a loss at Northwestern on Wednesday, the Jackets trailed 50-22 early in the second half before cutting the lead to single digits in the final 2-1/2 minutes.

The success with the zone “didn’t surprise us, because I know how good we are,” Alvarado said. “We just need to play a whole game like that, two halves.”

Alvarado demonstrated the team’s duality. He at times was Tech’s best player, handling St. John’s pressure, getting to the free-throw line and setting up teammates. He led Tech with 17 points. But he put his team in trouble by getting called for a technical foul after he had been called for a standard foul, giving him four fouls with 10:37 to play.

Pastner put him on the bench and Tech quickly unraveled, giving momentum to the Red Storm before Pastner put him back in 80 seconds later. On the game’s final play, down three, he rushed a desperation 3-point try when he could have advanced the ball closer before shooting. Alvarado, probably the most competitive player on the roster, was disconsolate after the game and accepted responsibility for the loss.

“A bad shot by me, and I should have been smarter about it,” he said.

“I wouldn’t trade Jose for anyone,” Pastner said. “It was just a play that was kind of a brain fart. That was all.”

Tech will play one game over the next two weeks with final exams approaching.

“We’re getting better,” Pastner said. “These games will help us out. We’ve just got to play a full 40 minutes.”