Tech will play Wake Forest on Wednesday night at McCamish Pavilion, a matchup of teams starving for victory. To reverse course, the Jackets will have to overcome a troubling habit of finding defeat.
Tech is shooting free throws better than any Jackets team in the past 20 years, but against Miami on Sunday lost its stroke. Tech made only six of 13 in the second half, including the front end of two one-and-ones, and lost 75-68. For good measure, the Jackets, vastly improved at taking care of the ball, gave it away 14 times in 65 possessions (22 percent), their highest rate of the ACC season.
Against Duke on Feb. 2, a Jackets team that after the weekend ranked fourth in the ACC in defensive 3-point field-goal percentage (33 percent in league play) took a sabbatical. Tech permitted Blue Devils guard Grayson Allen a career night from 3-point range (7-for-10) in an 80-71 loss.
Against Syracuse, the Jackets limited sharpshooter Trevor Cooney to 1-for-5 shooting from 3-point range, but lost the ball twice inside the final 90 seconds and then missed a free throw that would have tied the score with 5.7 seconds left. Against Louisville, Tech was nearly automatic from the free-throw line (19-for-23), but was torpedoed by a 15-point game from a backup freshman center (Anas Mahmoud), who has averaged 3.1 points in his other 10 ACC games.
And on it has gone.
Confidence may be part of the problem for a team that hasn’t had much practice making winning plays in conference play.
“Obviously, experience is a great teacher and helps you build confidence if you’ve done it before,” Gregory said. “So I think that has something to do with it. And at the same time, each of those individuals has made some big, crucial plays. And so, it’s again, in this game, it was that. In this game, it’s something else.”
It is not the pattern hoped for, nor expected, out of a team that has had 61 percent of its minutes supplied by its quintet of seniors, although three of them are transfers playing their first season with the team.
“That’s the consistency we’re trying to get,” Gregory said.
On Monday, Gregory lamented his team’s inability of late, despite its improvement at the free-throw line, to make clutch free throws.
“Or the timely defensive stops where, OK a team shoots 48 percent, but this is a crucial stop — you have to get this stop,” Gregory said. “We haven’t been able to do that.”
Success dances away from the Jackets, never too far but invariably slippery. The margin of defeat in all eight losses has been nine points or fewer, evidence of how close Tech has once again been to a far better season. For better or worse, of 78 Division I teams with eight or more conference losses going into Tuesday’s games, Tech and Alabama State are the only teams whose league defeats have all been by single-digit margins.
“We need to play a little better,” Gregory said. “When you’re close, it’s not a 50 percent increase, it’s a five percent increase. And if you do that, things are a lot different.”