After ‘as good a win as we’ve had here,’ Georgia Tech still needs more

Virginia Tech's Hunter Cattoor (0) tips the ball from Georgia Tech's Jordan Usher (4) during the first half Tuesday, Feb. 23, 2021, in Blacksburg, Va. (Matt Gentry/The Roanoke Times)
Virginia Tech's Hunter Cattoor (0) tips the ball from Georgia Tech's Jordan Usher (4) during the first half Tuesday, Feb. 23, 2021, in Blacksburg, Va. (Matt Gentry/The Roanoke Times)

Credit: Matt Gentry

Credit: Matt Gentry

The man who logs little sleep in general and for whom defeat practically ensures a sleepless night got some precious shut-eye late Tuesday night.

Georgia Tech coach Josh Pastner enjoyed at least a modicum of rest after the Yellow Jackets upset No. 16 Virginia Tech 69-53 in Blacksburg, a monumental result for their NCAA tournament hopes.

“I conked out on the plane right away,” Pastner said Wednesday morning. “I literally just conked out.”

Successfully leading his team to what may have been the most significant win in his five-year tenure will induce such slumber. The Jackets’ win was notable on a number of fronts in a historical context, but it was most meaningful for what it means this season. At Cassell Coliseum, Tech faced up to its demons and earned a road win over a highly rated opponent, a most valuable currency with the tournament selection committee. In the season that Pastner has envisioned and touted as the one when the Jackets would be ready to earn their first tournament appearance since 2010, the win at Cassell was crucial, perhaps even necessary.

“It was as good a win as we’ve had here,” Pastner told the AJC, who usually is not given to such categorization. “It was a special win.”

The win improved Tech’s record to 12-8 and elevated the team in the NET rankings (the NCAA’s ranking system) from No. 49 to 36. It’s almost certainly the highest that the Jackets have been ranked in NET or its predecessor, RPI, this late in the season since the 2009-10 season. (In the two seasons since then when Tech played in the NIT, 2016 and 2017, the Jackets’ RPI on selection Sunday was 69th and 106th, respectively.)

After Tuesday’s win, Tech’s probability of making the tournament jumped 20 percentage points to 56%, according to the website Team Rankings.

“We needed that game to go on our résumé,” Pastner said. “Our guys knew that, and it was a huge win for us.”

Credit: ACC

Yellow Jackets hold the 16th-ranked Hokies to their the lowest scoring output of the season.

Credit: ACC

That said, Tech is nowhere close to solid ground for an NCAA invite. After the win over the Hokies, ESPN bracketologist Joe Lunardi moved the Jackets into the top of his “next four out” grouping after the win over the Hokies, meaning they’re fifth on his list of teams closest to getting into the field.

The Jackets need to keep winning, starting with a home game against Syracuse on Saturday, followed by games next week against Duke and at Wake Forest. Tech could help itself by giving losses to the Orange and Blue Devils, also on the bubble.

“They certainly could play their way in with a strong close and a win or two in the ACC tournament,” said Dave Ommen of Bracketville.

Still, Tech’s win over the Hokies validated the team’s belief in itself after crushing road losses earlier in the season to Virginia, Duke and Clemson.

“We want to make the dance,” guard Jose Alvarado said. “We want to go dancing.”

Against the Cavaliers, Blue Devils and Tigers, the Jackets had chances to win in the final minute of each game before losing all three. Hurried possessions and defensive lapses in the second halves of each game led the Jackets there.

On Tuesday in Blacksburg, Georgia Tech navigated similar waters. After taking a 41-28 lead with 13:31 to go on an Alvarado 3-pointer, the Jackets braced themselves. Coming off a 17-day COVID-19 pause, Virginia Tech found its rhythm on offense and trimmed the lead to 48-42 with 7:20 left with an 8-0 run.

It was the start of a stretch in which the Hokies scored on seven of eight possessions. It could have been buckling. Pastner had seen it before.

“That’s not a movie, that’s a nightmare,” Pastner said after the game. “And it’s R-rated, and it’s scary and it’s awful. And it leaves you sleepless for multiple nights in a row. And you can’t eat and you wake up in cold sweats. So yes, I’ve seen that before.”

However, as Virginia Tech applied pressure, Georgia Tech answered. From the point the lead was cut to 48-42, the Jackets scored on their next seven possessions, finishing with a 3-pointer from Bubba Parham at the 2:56 mark. It extended the lead to 66-50 to begin to put the game to bed.

Said Hokies coach Mike Young, who faced Parham in the Southern Conference when Young was at Wofford and Parham was a prolific scorer at VMI, “I’ve seen enough of Bubba Parham in my career, I can tell you that.”

With his team pulling away, Pastner had the luxury of subbing his starters in the final minute, a rarity.

“We’re learning to be that team that, when we have a lead, doesn’t mess around with it,” Alvarado said.

Pastner called it a sign of maturity for his senior-dominated team.

“Other games like that where we’ve not held on and won, we’ve lost at the ends of it,” he said. “Learning how to do that, learning how to win was an important step in that direction.”

It was Tech’s first road win over an opponent ranked in the AP Top 25 since January 2015, ending a streak of 21 consecutive losses.

Team leaders

Further, coupled with the Jackets’ 87-60 win at Miami on Saturday, it was the first time that Tech has won back-to-back ACC road games by double digits since the 1985-86 season, when Jackets legends Mark Price and John Salley were seniors. (Despite the 1990 team going to the school’s first Final Four, coach Bobby Cremins has considered the 1986 team his best.) The Miami-Virginia Tech wins did mark the first time that the Jackets have won back-to-back ACC road games by 15 points.

Tuesday’s win also was only Georgia Tech’s second at Cassell Coliseum in 12 visits.

It does bear mention that the Hokies, coming off their pause, were highly vulnerable. Their 53 points were a season low, Georgia Tech’s 52.0% shooting from the field was the second highest allowed by the Hokies this season. Young, the Virginia Tech coach, acknowledged the difficulty of his team’s circumstances but didn’t make excuses.

“Bottom line, (we) got beat by a better team (Tuesday),” Young said. “I thought we lost our edge a little bit. I thought we got hit in the stomach, and we stepped away from it, and that is unlike our team.”

With a major hurdle cleared, the Jackets can’t afford to stumble now.

Said Alvarado, “We don’t plan on losing because we know, basically, our season’s on the line every time we step on the court.”

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