With 3:45 remaining in the game, Georgia Tech held a 61-60 over N.C. State. After losing eight consecutive games, victory and relief were in reach for the Yellow Jackets. This would be a seismic win, upsetting a team on the outskirts of the Top 25 on its home court.
“I was telling the guys that we’ve got to stick it out for these last three minutes,” guard Miles Kelly said.
Kelly was speaking outside the Tech locker room of PNC Arena Saturday afternoon in Raleigh, N.C. He related the story, though, not as a detail of how the Jackets were able to stand tall and end their slide. Over that final 3:45, the game slipped away from the Jackets with missed 3-point tries, turnovers and the Wolfpack draining nine of 11 free throws to win 72-64 and crumple Tech’s hopes again.
“It’s tough,” Kelly said in an interview with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “When you buy into something and you put your all into it and you’re not getting the results you wanted, it’s kind of like a letdown. But it’s about how you handle adversity and how you keep a positive mindset.”
Tech’s losing streak reached nine games with the loss to the Wolfpack, the longest since the Jackets lost 13 in a row to end the 1980-81 season and the tenure of coach Dwane Morrison. Where errant shooting had come to be the Jackets’ downfall of late, Saturday it was turnovers (17 of them), the absence of center Rodney Howard (out with Achilles tendon and ankle injuries) and possibly fatigue as coach Josh Pastner played each of his starters at least 36 minutes.
“I wanted to win so bad for our guys because losing stinks,” Pastner said, a variation of a comment he has relied upon often this winter. “Losing’s no fun, and we’ve taken quite a few on the chin.”
The Jackets’ loss to N.C. State, in which they played more effectively against one of the ACC’s better teams but couldn’t hang on in the final four minutes, dropped Tech to 8-15 overall and 1-12 in the league.
“It’s kind of tough knowing that we’re putting in all the time,” guard Kyle Sturdivant said. “We’ve just got to come together as a team and close out games.”
On top of the losing, players are doubtlessly aware of the heavy questioning that Pastner has come under for his leadership of the team as the season has veered south. It’s not hard to find.
“We just try to control what we can control and try to go out there and win games,” Sturdivant said. “Everything else is not in our hands.”
Still, it has appeared that players have not fragmented on each other or given up on the season, and Saturday’s game offered an indication.
Kelly scored a team-high 17 for the Jackets with his most efficient scoring game (he was 7-for-14 from the field, including 3-for-8 from 3-point range) in several games along with a career-high nine rebounds. Kelly has been in a 3-point shooting slump since a phenomenal 11-game run during which he made 36 of 79 shots (45.6%). As his shot strayed, Kelly said Friday that he stayed true to his routine, figuring that since it had served him well when he was shooting well so there was not a need to change.
Before the team left for Raleigh on Friday, Kelly took extra shots Thursday night in a private shooting session, returning to the gym Friday morning and again just before the team’s flight. It was not the behavior of a player who has grown discouraged with the season’s course, nor was his throwning his body around to reach his career rebounding high.
Forward Ja’von Franklin said that he has seen players’ will and attitude in the way that they motivate each other, keep practices spirited and share the ball on the floor.
“We’re going hard in practice every day,” he said. “It’s just frustrating to keep losing.”
Against N.C. State, Franklin put up a stunning stat line – 16 points (on 7-for-12 shooting) with eight rebounds, five blocks and five assists – that indicated that he hasn’t given in. And he did so while banging against Wolfpack post players who had size advantages over him.
Dating back to at least 2010-11, Franklin became the first Tech player to hit all of those marks for points, rebounds, blocks and assists in a single game, according to sports-reference.com. In fact, only two other players from power-conference schools – neither from the ACC – had managed such a game against a power-conference opponent in that span. Franklin is presumably the first to do while spending much of the time defending a post player who was two inches taller and 61 pounds heavier – in this case, N.C. State forward D.J. Burns (6-foot-9, 275 pounds) – with little help from the bench. Franklin’s tank was empty when he fouled out with 11 seconds to play, having played 37 minutes, including all 20 minutes of the second half, but he was making Burns work for his points and trying to keep him and his cohorts off the glass.
Ultimately, of course, the results matter most. Tech has eight regular-season games remaining, including a non-conference matchup with Division II Florida Tech.
“We’re going to stay together,” Franklin said. “We’ve still got a lot more games, a lot more opportunities, obviously, the ACC Tournament. We’re just going to try to get got going into that, stay together.”
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