Behind Jose Alvarado, Georgia Tech prevails over Nebraska

Stuck in foul trouble for much of the game, Georgia Tech guard Jose Alvarado came through when it mattered. Scoring from 3-point range and finding open teammates, Alvarado drove the Yellow Jackets to a 75-64 win over Nebraska Wednesday night in Lincoln, Neb.

It was Tech’s second win in a row over the Cornhuskers in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge after a win last December at McCamish Pavilion. More importantly, the win leveled coach Josh Pastner’s team at 2-2 and put further into the past its costly season-opening losses to Georgia State and Mercer. Tech now awaits the sternest test of the young season, a road game at No. 20 Florida State next Tuesday in both teams’ ACC opener.

“You’ve got to give him credit,” Nebraska coach Fred Hoiberg said of Alvarado. “He stepped up and made huge plays for them.”

It was Alvarado, Pastner’s four-year starter at point guard, who directed the Jackets out of trouble against Nebraska. Alvarado scored a game-high 24 points — 19 of them in the second half as Tech rallied from a 43-37 deficit with 14:34 remaining behind his playmaking. Included in the total were three critical 3-pointers in five attempts, all in the second half, as the Jackets were successful in their first road trip of the season, playing in a virtually empty Pinnacle Bank Arena.

Further, Alvarado made his impression on the game while playing the final 13:51 with four fouls. Pastner even had the faith in Alvarado to play a number of defensive possessions in man-to-man defense, when it would have been easy for a Nebraska player to drive hard at him in an attempt to pin him with his fifth and disqualifying foul.

“(Pastner) just trusted me, and I’m glad he did, because I went out there and he gave me the green light to just hoop,” said Alvarado, who added three assists in playing an unusually light 24 minutes.

With 7:21 remaining, Alvarado scored on a pullup to tie the game at 51, then hit 3-pointers on the next two possessions to take Tech’s first lead since the first minute of the second half, the latter widening the gap to 57-52. (Both baskets were created by forward Khalid Moore, the first off an offensive rebound and the second on one of his two steals in the game.) He then slipped a pass on a screen-and-roll to forward Moses Wright for a basket and foul.

After two Wright free throws (fouled on a lob from who else), Alvarado tossed in another 3 and then set up Wright for a 3-pointer for a 67-56 lead with 3:29 remaining that proved a haymaker. Hoiberg said that he saw his team “splinter a little bit” as the Jackets made their run. Alvarado was the one wielding the axe.

Wright, who says he can tell Alvarado is about to take over a game when he starts yelling at him, said he thought it was around the nine-minute mark that Alvarado screamed “something at me about pointing, and I was like, O.K, Jose’s about to take over. I was like, alright, cool. Let’s rock. Let’s rock out.”

Where Wright was the force behind the Jackets’ win over Kentucky on Sunday at State Farm Arena, he was happy to let Alvarado lead the team home Wednesday night. Still, Wright finished with 13 points, eight rebounds, a team-high four assists and two blocks, most of it accumulated in the second half. Moore and guard Michael Devoe (21 combined first half points) held the Jackets together in the first half, when the Jackets were in control of Nebraska on defense, but themselves were shooting the ball poorly also. Tech led 32-30 at the half.

The first half also included a sequence in which Cornhuskers guard Trey McGowens, who transferred from Pitt, drew a foul on Wright by backing into him on the dribble as Wright headed back on defense. The two tangled up, and then, after a video review, Nebraska’s Lat Mayen was called for a technical for apparently pushing Wright while he was still piled up with McGowens.

“It was a lot of, not really physicality, but a lot of machoness, a lot of testosterone flaring during the first half,” Wright said. “We weren’t fazed by it, but it was like, we came in the locker room talking like, yeah, second half, let’s go ahead and shut ‘em up and shut ‘em down.”

Nebraska guard Trey McGowens (2) is fouled by Georgia Tech's Kyle Sturdivant (1) en route to the basket during the second half Wednesday, Dec. 9, 2020, in Lincoln, Neb. (Francis Gardler/Lincoln Journal Star)


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Such was the Jackets’ flow with Alvarado in charge that Pastner made an unusual coaching decision by doing nothing at all. Alvarado picked up his fourth foul with 18:26 left in the game, and Pastner returned him to the floor with 13:51 remaining.

A little less than four minutes later, after Nebraska guard Kobe Webster made the last of his six 3-pointers (a career high for the grad transfer from Western Illinois) to put the Cornhuskers up 49-45, Alvarado led a 12-3 run to flip the lead. Pastner stayed with the five on the floor – guards Bubba Parham and Kyle Sturdivant, Moore, Alvarado and Wright – for the final 13:51, leaving Devoe, among others, on the bench. Devoe finished with 12 points in 23 minutes. While unorthodox for most, it was consistent with Pastner’s habit of coaching by feel.

“I’ve said it before,” Pastner said. “I’m a guy that, if a group is playing well, usually I leave that group in.”

On paper, it doesn’t rate as the most impressive win. Four of Nebraska’s five starters transferred in for this season, which doesn’t equip them with the sort of chemistry and cohesion that the veteran Jackets brought to Lincoln. But, on a night when the offense didn’t hum with the same efficiency that it did against Kentucky, the Jackets trusted their defense to carry them through. Nebraska (3-2) shot 37.7% from the field and turned the ball over 16 times, which Tech turned into 15 points. The Jackets, meanwhile, turned in their second single-digit turnover game in a row, a first since the end of the 2018-19 season.

“Our young men deserve all the credit,” Pastner said. “They were excellent. They defended at a high level.”

And, it bears mention, after its embarrassing start, few would have predicted that the Jackets could pick themselves up and take down two power-conference opponents in convincing fashion.

“This is us,” Alvarado said. “This is Georgia Tech from now on. I’ll be shocked if we stop playing like this. We’ve got to keep on improving because we are a really good team.”