After a series of failed attempts in previous weeks and seasons, Georgia Tech closed the deal on a marquee opponent Wednesday night at McCamish Pavilion.
Taking advantage of a fast start, rugged defense throughout and some fairly shoddy play by its opponent, the Yellow Jackets seized their biggest win of the season and arguably coach Josh Pastner’s tenure with a 64-58 win over No. 5 Louisville Wednesday. It was Tech’s first win over a team ranked in the AP’s top five since defeating No. 4 Virginia in January 2016, coach Brian Gregory’s final season. The upset also ended Tech’s 17-game losing streak against Top 25 teams as well as Louisville’s nine-game winning streak against Tech, the last seven of which were played as ACC opponents.
“It was good to be able to get over that hump,” guard Michael Devoe said.
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In Pastner’s four seasons, the win may have only two rivals — the Jackets’ win over eventual national champion North Carolina (then No. 9) on New Year’s Eve in 2016 and their rout over then-No. 6 Florida State a month later.
“I thought they were excited to play,” Louisville coach Chris Mack said. “I thought they took the fight to us.”
Tech (12-13, 6-8) scored on the opening possession, shocked the Cardinals by taking a 12-2 lead and managed to stay ahead the rest of the way. In the second half, the Jackets never led by more than seven points, their efforts to gain separation often foiled by their own turnovers, clunky possessions or missed free throws.
But their defense, as well as the Cardinals’ own flawed possessions, prevented Louisville from ever overtaking them. Louisville (21-4, 12-2) had five possessions in the final three minutes to tie or take the lead, but came up empty on four and scored a two-point field goal once when down three.
Tech managed the upset despite 18 turnovers, in part because Louisville had 16 turnovers.
“It wasn’t pretty, and we had some turnovers, missed some free throws and had some tough possessions, but we won through defense,” Pastner said. “And I’ve said this, I know I sound like a broken record and I know I’m a repeater because I repeat myself a lot, but we have gotten a ton better.”
Perhaps the most pivotal defensive play unfolded near the 1:30 mark with Tech ahead 53-51. After forward Moses Wright missed a jumper, Louisville broke out in a transition attack, freeing up guard David Johnson for a layup. However, trailing the play, Wright chased down Johnson and blocked his shot against the backboard.
After a lengthy review to determine whether Wright’s block was actually goaltending, it was determined a block. On Tech’s next possession, Wright scored on a drive to the basket to push the lead to 55-51 and again keep the Cardinals at arm’s length.
“That was the game,” said Pastner, who added that he had excused Wright from Tuesday’s practice to let him complete a homework assignment due Wednesday morning.
The Jackets then hung on, making nine of 10 free throws in the final 30 seconds, including guards Jose Alvarado and Devoe each making 4 of 4. Tech had made 11 of 18 to that point.
Alvarado led the team with 18 points, including two early 3-pointers that helped the Jackets gain the early edge.
For a change, Louisville was left to rue its 16 turnovers and 3-for-24 3-point shooting, the latter a season-low 12.5% and a marked deviation from its average in ACC play of 44.9%, highest in the conference. Its last turnover was typical of a sloppy night for the Cardinals. With about eight seconds left, guard Lamarr Kimble drove into the lane with his team down 60-58. Kimble appeared to slip and fall and the ball bounced right up to Devoe, who was fouled and made the game-sealing free throws with 8.1 seconds remaining.
It was surely a satisfying contribution for Devoe, who missed his first six field-goal tries Wednesday and also came up empty on a potential game-winning 3-pointer in the final seconds in the team’s loss at Louisville in January.
“They got us last time, so we had to come in here and get a win,” he said.
It was atypical play for the Cardinals, who had won their previous 10 games — the longest winning streak in ACC play since the 1982-83 season. In the streak, Louisville’s lowest scoring output was 67 points.
“It was an ugly game, it was a muddy game and we weren’t dirty enough to win,” Mack said.
Regardless, the night was marked by a number of effort plays made by the Jackets such as Wright’s chase-down block to tilt the game in their favor. Another: In the first half, center James Banks threw his 6-foot-10 body to the floor to secure a loose ball and start a possession that concluded with a Jordan Usher fast-break dunk.
Alvarado, assigned to guard the ACC’s leading scorer Jordan Nwora, hounded him into his poorest scoring game of the season — two points on 1-for-6 shooting from the field. The 6-foot Alvarado reprised the role he played in defending the 6-foot-7 Nwora in the teams’ first meeting, a 68-64 Cardinals win in which Nwora scored 10 points, well below his 19.5 points-per-game average.
“My teammates were in the gap helping me, but I knew I was going to come in and guard a big-time player, and I just gave it all I had on defense for him,” Alvarado said.
“I mean, they put a 5-11, 6-foot tough kid on him, and we run post-up plays, and Jordan can’t figure out how to be tough enough to hold a guy off and lay the ball in,” Mack said.
The chase-down block (and the result of the video review) was representative of the plays made or breaks caught that helped carry the Jackets to victory, the sort that have often eluded them throughout the season and led Pastner to repeatedly assert that the Jackets were better than their record.
Entering the game, Tech was 2-6 in ACC games decided by fewer than 10 points, and the Jackets had lost three games in which they had had a possession to either tie or take the lead with fewer than three minutes remaining but had failed to convert.
“It’s a make-and-miss game, and sometimes it’s a bounce here and there that determines the game,” Pastner said.
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