Against Northeastern, Georgia Tech finds its stride

Georgia Tech paid Northeastern $80,000 to travel south for a game at McCamish Pavilion, and Friday night’s game had the look of money well spent for the Yellow Jackets.

In Tech’s 81-63 win over the Huskies, any number of early-season flaws were addressed. Center Rodney Howard came off the bench to score 12 points, six more than he had scored in his previous five games combined. The Jackets’ difficulties keeping opponents off the offensive glass took a one-night respite. Even the Jackets’ sometimes suspect free-throw shooting was certifiably swishy (20-for-26 from the line, 76.9%).

“We knew we wanted to get this game and come out strong because we know we’ve got two big games coming up – Georgia and UNC,” said forward Jalon Moore, who shared high-scoring honors with guard Miles Kelly with 16. “So we wanted to come out and get those games at full throttle.”

Time will tell if putting a thumping on Northeastern – a team that finished last in the Colonial Athletic Association last year and dropped to 1-6 with its loss to Tech – has properly grooved the Jackets (5-3) for meetings with their instate archrivals and last year’s NCAA finalist over the next week. But it was better than the alternative.

“You’ve got to play who you’re going to play,” coach Josh Pastner said.

Tech took the floor Friday night having lost three of its past four – two losses at a neutral-site event to Utah and Marquette and another at Iowa in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge. As is his wont, Pastner looked with optimism at the 81-65 loss to the Hawkeyes on Tuesday. For one thing, Tech may have gotten the short end of the officiating stick, taking 10 free throws to Iowa’s 31. And the Hawkeyes exposed again the Jackets’ weakness on the defensive glass, a hole created by Tech’s usage of the 1-3-1 zone defense, its lack of size and perhaps a shortfall of grit. On 19 offensive rebounds – almost matching Tech’s 20 defensive rebounds – Iowa scored 27 second-chance points.

“If you just get (second-chance points) to 17 and just have a couple (loose balls) that go our direction and all of the sudden, we score in transition because of our speed, the whole flow of the game’s different,” Pastner said. “So our survivability’s got to be all about our rebounding and our hits and having a hit-first mentality.”

After giving ground early to a physically overmatched Northeastern team Friday – the Huskies won eight of the first 18 rebounds on their offensive end – Tech righted itself. After that point, the Jackets permitted Northeastern five more offensive rebounds to Tech’s 21 defensive rebounds. Better, but still not ideal, particularly considering the level of opponent.

The Jackets allowed 6-foot-8 Alexander Nwagha to capture three offensive rebounds in 21 minutes of play Friday. It’s conceivable Armando Bacot, North Carolina’s preseason All-American post player, might be able to acquit himself even better a week from Saturday when Tech opens ACC play in the Smith Center.

“We’re not good enough to give up 15, 16, 17, 18, 19, 20 offensive rebounds,” Pastner said.

Perhaps the offensive gains achieved Friday can stick. After shooting below 40% from the field in five of its first seven games – the exceptions being the games against Division II Clayton State and North Alabama – Tech made 44.4% of its shots against the Huskies.

Kelly dropped four of five 3-point tries and is 8-for-13 from behind the arc in his past two games.

“My teammates did a great job of finding me in open areas to get my shot off,” Kelly said.

Guard Lance Terry was 5-for-6 from the field and Howard was 4-for-7, showing more agility and better hands than in previous games. Tech was especially effective close to the basket, scoring 42 of its points in the paint. That’s almost 11 more than the Jackets have scored against their three power-conference opponents.

“I thought Rodney was really good (Friday),” Pastner said. “I thought he was really solid, and we need Rodney to be really good for us. He played the right way. He was really active and did a great job.”