About midway through the first half of Georgia Tech’s game against Georgia Southern on Friday at McCamish Pavilion, Yellow Jackets guard Michael Devoe had information he needed to share with coach Josh Pastner.
“He says, ‘Coach, I want to give it a go,’” Pastner said.
Devoe had expected to play against the Eagles after missing the team’s Monday win over Charleston Southern with flu symptoms. But during warmups before the game, Devoe felt light-headed and determined he wouldn’t be able to play. Leaving the court, he returned to the locker room and lay down before coming back to the bench, looking drained.
“Really just wanted to go out there and fight with my brothers and win us a game,” Devoe said. “I saw their energy and stuff and I wanted to go out there and contribute, as well. Just seeing that, just the passion and love for the game, I wanted to go out there and play.”
Devoe’s efforts were central to Tech’s 61-59 win over the Eagles (4-2) in the team’s sixth all-time meeting and first since January 1998. The Jackets (5-1) were down 14-10 when he checked into the game and later fell behind by as many as 14 points in the first half before an energetic second-half comeback earned them their fifth win in a row. In 30 minutes – Pastner never took his star guard out after subbing him in at the 10:17 mark of the first half – Devoe scored a game-high 26 points to go with five rebounds, five assists and two steals against four turnovers. He made five of nine 3-point tries, continuing an excellent start to his senior season. The ACC’s leading scorer entering the game, Devoe raised his season average to 23.4 points per game while making 56.9% of his field-goal tries.
“I feel pretty good now,” Devoe said. “I think it’s the adrenaline. But before the game, I didn’t feel so well. I didn’t know if I was going to go or not. But again, I saw my teammates fighting, and I just wanted to go out there and help them out.”
Devoe was one of several Jackets players under the weather. Six players, including guard Deivon Smith, were unavailable to play as the team suffers from a flu bug that has spread throughout Tech’s campus. (Pastner told the AJC that the team did not have any COVID-19 cases; the campus had had a positivity rate below 1% since early September.) Pastner had five players available for Wednesday’s practice and only 10 of his 16 players (not counting injured guard Bubba Parham) on hand at practice Thursday. Game preparation for the Eagles was limited to shooting drills and watching Georgia Southern game video.
Eagles coach Brian Burg’s team was the more active in the early going, outfighting the Jackets for offensive rebounds to build their 39-27 halftime lead. Twelve of the 39 were second-chance points as Georgia Southern seized six offensive rebounds to Tech’s nine defensive rebounds in the first half. The defending ACC champions were again in the sights of an upset-minded mid-major team, following Tech’s season-opening loss to Miami (Ohio).
“We came out the first 20 minutes, played really good basketball,” Burg said. “I thought we were extremely disciplined, executing the game plan, jumped out with a lead. But give credit to Georgia Tech, a well-coached team, making the adjustments at halftime.”
Tech took control of the game right after halftime, starting the second half on a 12-1 run in the first 4 1/2 minutes to cut the Eagles’ lead to one, a stretch that brought the announced crowd of 4,486 to life.
“Great crowd by Yellow Jacket nation, and really, really happy about that,” Pastner said. “They gave us a great lift.”
The Tech adjustment that Burg referenced was to get center Rodney Howard involved. He scored the Jackets’ first seven points of the half on his way to a 10-point game with six rebounds and three assists against one turnover in a career-high 36 minutes.
“That first four minutes (of the second half), they really took it to us, and that was the difference in the game, in my opinion,” Burg said.
Howard, who played sparingly last season, has become increasingly capable as the successor in the post to ACC player of the year Moses Wright. In the past five games, Howard has 16 assists against eight turnovers. Forward Jordan Usher scored nine with 10 rebounds, his third 10-rebound game of the season.
The Jackets’ offense labored – the 61-point output was the season low – and Tech also benefited from the Eagles making six of 13 free throws and turning the ball over 16 times. (The Jackets similarly were ham-handed, shooting 12 of 24 from the line and amassing 14 turnovers.) Guards Cam Bryant and Elijah McCadden led Georgia Southern with 14 points each.
Perhaps worn out by game’s end, Tech stumbled to the finish line in avoiding the upset. Ahead 60-54 at the 2:32 mark, the Jackets turned the ball over on their next three possessions, allowing the Eagles to close to 60-59 on a 3-pointer by Bryant with 53 seconds left. Devoe was fouled with 7.8 seconds left and made one of two free throws, giving the Eagles a chance to tie or go for the win on their last shot. McCadden was just off the mark on a 3-point try – he may have been on the 3-point arc, which would have made it a game-tying two-point basket had it gone in – as time expired. Pastner said as the shot was in the air, he had flashbacks to Tech’s November 2019 home loss to Arkansas, when the Jackets lost on a long-distance, banked-in 3-pointer in the final second.
“Because it worked out, I can go to sleep tonight,” said Pastner, who also is under the effects of the flu and brought a box of tissues to the postgame news conference.
Tech will try to recover before its sternest test of the season to date, a Wednesday night home game against Wisconsin as part of the Big Ten/ACC Challenge. The Badgers won the prestigious Maui Invitational (played in Las Vegas) earlier this week, defeating Texas A&M, Houston and Saint Mary’s on consecutive days.