Georgia Tech coach Josh Pastner had a sense that his team wasn’t ready to play its Monday night game against Gardner-Webb, and his intuition was on target. Playing defense perhaps more poorly than it has all season, Tech lost 79-69 to Gardner-Webb, a team picked to finish in the middle of one of the weaker conferences in Division I.
“I knew this was a good team we were playing because of the way they shot the ball,” Pastner said. “I said, ‘This is a great test of our defensive fundamentals,’ and (Monday), our defense wasn’t good.”
It rivals the Yellow Jackets’ home loss last season to Grambling State as perhaps the most humbling of Pastner’s tenure, now in its third season. Tech (5-4) trailed for the final 22:56, was not closer than seven for the last 17:34 and paid Gardner-Webb $85,000 for the privilege.
The Jackets’ comeback attempt in the second half was not managed well, as they turned the ball over six times and were 0-for-11 from 3-point range. Pastner said that players were feeling the weight of their circumstances in the second half. Guard Jose Alvarado said his team wasn’t as focused as it should have been.
“We didn’t come ready to play,” he said. “They played a better game than us. That’s basically what it was.”
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Pastner was at a loss to explain how the Bulldogs made field goals at a higher rate (52.5 percent) than any mid-major opponent that the Yellow Jackets have faced in his tenure. Gardner-Webb (8-5) scored easy baskets at the rim throughout the game on penetration, pick-and-rolls and set plays that freed players through screens.
Tech players were coming off finals, had only played one game in the previous 15 days and Pastner had worked the team hard in that span, often putting it through two-a-day sessions.
“So I need to look at why wasn’t our defense good?” Pastner said. “Is it the two-a-days? Is it too much? Did we give too much of a scouting report? Were they too slow on their feet thinking about things? I don’t know. We’ve got to look at that, but we just weren’t good defensively (Monday).”
The defense was particularly broken in the first half, when Gardner-Webb guards Jose Perez and David Efianayi drove to the basket to create shots for forward D.J. Laster. The Bulldogs were 18-for-30 from the field in the first 20 minutes with Laster scoring 20 on 10-for-13 shooting.
“I myself, I can’t speak for the team, but I myself was a little lackadaisical defensively in the first half, and that really hurt us in the whole game,” forward James Banks said. “We have to put this behind us.”
It was not the sort of performance that was expected from a team that came into the game ranked 10th nationally in adjusted defensive efficiency (KenPom).
Laster tied his career high with 25 points. Perez had eight assists. Efianayi scored perhaps the biggest basket of the game. With the Bulldogs ahead 68-61 near the four-minute mark, Laster was blocked by Banks but managed to keep the play alive, passing out to Efianayi beyond the 3-point arc. With the shot clock about to expire, Efianayi tossed up a shot that nestled in the basket for a 71-61 lead. Tech was never closer than eight after that.
“Certainly that big shot by Efianayi, it looked like it was our night at that point,” Gardner-Webb coach Tim Craft said.
Banks led Tech with a career-high 22 points on 10-for-14 shooting to go with 12 rebounds, which tied his career high. Alvarado scored 19 points, but was 2-for-9 from 3-point range. Guard Curtis Haywood scored his 12 points in a flurry, making four 3-pointers in a three-minute span in the first half.
The Jackets were 6-for-23 from 3-point range, an area that Pastner had counted on to be vastly improved from last season. Tech is now making 30.9 percent of its 3-point tries, which is lower than its season-ending rate from last year.
“They made theirs and we just didn’t make ours (Monday),” Pastner said.
Tech will have to regroup quickly, as the Jackets will travel Tuesday to play Arkansas Wednesday night followed by a home game Saturday against Georgia, which holds a three-game winning streak over the Jackets.
On Dec. 1, the Jackets were good enough to nearly give a neutral-floor loss to St. John’s, which is now 10-0. Monday, they were poor enough to lose at home to a team that has home losses to Arkansas State and Eastern Illinois.
“We’ve just got to dig ourselves out of this hole and try to find a way to get a win on Wednesday and play well, get back to who we are defensively,” Pastner said.