After two of the more foundation-rattling losses of coach Josh Pastner’s tenure, Georgia Tech rebounded Sunday with one of its most affirming. Following losses to Georgia State and Mercer to open the season in which they did nothing to validate their preseason status as an NCAA tournament contender, the Yellow Jackets flummoxed No. 20 Kentucky in a 79-62 win at State Farm Arena.
“Awesome team win, awesome program win,” Pastner said.
Challenging shooters and intercepting passes out of its trademark 1-3-1 defense, Tech stymied the Wildcats from the start. Kentucky (1-3) turned the ball over 21 times to six for Tech (1-2), giving the Jackets a vast advantage in possessions and helping them create a 19-7 advantage in fast-break points.
At the other end, with guards Jose Alvarado, Michael Devoe and Bubba Parham taking care of the ball and creating opportunities for themselves and their teammates, the Jackets shot 51.7% from the field after having shot 40.3% in the two losses. Devoe made his presence felt without even scoring a point for the first time since early in his freshman year. The junior was credited with five assists, three rebounds and three steals and also took at least one charge. In an empty arena, the Jackets fed off their own energy.
“He didn’t score, but he played one of the best games of his career,” Pastner said.
The win was Pastner’s first over a ranked non-conference opponent and, particularly considering the circumstances, his most significant. In Tech’s first game at State Farm since the 2011-12 season, part of the Holiday Hoopsgiving event, the Jackets gave a far different account of themselves, doing so in front of an ESPN audience.
“This is who we are,” Pastner said.
It was the product of a week of intense practices meant to summon the toughness and energetic play that helped lift Tech to its first winning record in ACC play since 2004. Those attributes were missing in the two losses, in no small part because Pastner had made the decision to conduct no-contact practices as a means of avoiding a team-wide quarantine in the event of a positive COVID-19 test.
Tech’s unorthodox defensive scheme gave Kentucky’s freshman-dominated lineup trouble, as evidenced by the Wildcats’ turnovers. Moses Wright, moved to center after Rodney Howard had started there in the first two games, was a standout, challenging shots and cleaning the glass on defense and scoring on drives and jumpers at the other end. He finished with a team-high 21 points on 9-for-14 shooting to go with eight rebounds and three blocks.
Wright may have been at his best in a critical passage of the game halfway through the second half. Kentucky had closed the lead to 45-42 after trailing earlier in the half by 41-30. Wright scored on a hesitation move to raise the lead to 47-42, then secured a defensive rebound at the other end. After hitting a long jumper over Kentucky center Olivier Sarr, he stole a pass in the low post and started a transition attack, kicking out to guard Bubba Parham for a long 3-pointer and a 52-42 lead. He ended the next Kentucky possession with another rebound, then found Parham for another jumper and a 54-42 advantage.
“I just knew if I passed to somebody and they shot it, it was going in,” Wright said. “If I shot it was going in. The rim was just like the ocean at that point.”
Tech’s lead was never below 12 points after that. Off the bench, Kyle Sturdivant scored 15. Parham had 17 and four assists.