The second of his game-clinching free throws made, Jose Alvarado pounded his chest. On the same court where his team had opened the season a month ago with confounding losses to Georgia State and Mercer — the former compelled him to hide his head in a towel — Alvarado could now swell with pride over a well-deserved win over one of the more significant names in college basketball.

Led by Alvarado and backcourt partner Michael Devoe, both dropping 20 points, Georgia Tech won for the fifth time in sixth games, this time in a 72-67 win over North Carolina on Wednesday night at McCamish Pavilion.

“Everybody did their job, everybody contributed, and it was a great win,” coach Josh Pastner said.

It was a win for the Jackets’ small-ball lineup against the height of the Tar Heels. With North Carolina keeping two big men at least 6-foot-10 on the floor throughout, Tech relied on Devoe, Alvarado and guard Bubba Parham to counter by racing down the floor for transition baskets, scoring from the perimeter, slashing to the rim when space opened, helping on double teams in the post and scrapping for defensive rebounds to deny the Tar Heels second-chance points.

The trio handled the assignments adeptly. Tech (5-3, 1-1 ACC) scored 15 fast-break points, with the three scoring and assisting on the bulk of them. They were a combined 8-for-14 from 3-point range. They dug out 14 defensive rebounds, helping limit the Tar Heels (5-4, 0-2) to a season-low 10 offensive rebounds and seven second-chance points, well below their season average of 19.9.

Credit: ACC

Georgia Tech won for the fifth time in sixth games, beating the Tar Heels 72-67 Dec. 30, 2020, at McCamish Pavilion in Atlanta.

Credit: ACC

“We knew we had to crash the boards because we know we’re an undersized team,” said Alvarado, who had a team-high seven rebounds, all on the defensive end. “But we knew that we’re dogs. We’re going to fight with anybody in this league.”

Creating shots for each other in transition and in the half-court, Tech shot 52.9% from the field, a season high for UNC opponents. The Jackets’ energy level delighted Pastner.

“We came up with a lot of those loose balls, 50/50 balls, scrum-type of plays,” he said.

Even as North Carolina broke out of a season-long 3-point shooting slump in the second half — making six of 12 attempts after halftime — the Devoe/Alvarado/Parham trio asserted itself, playing like the veteran guards that Pastner has needed them to be in a season when his “get old and stay old” vision has been expected to bear returns. The three often got the better of North Carolina’s guards, a group that included four freshmen. Tech limited itself to 13 turnovers to North Carolina’s 18, the fifth time in the past six games that the Jackets came out ahead in turnover margin.

“We have a lot of guys that have played a lot of minutes in the ACC and been in times like this where it’s close games,” Devoe said. “We stayed calm, we stayed poised and we won the game.”

After Pastner called timeout at the 6:53 mark with the Jackets down 61-53 following an 8-0 UNC run, Parham buried a 3 and then another when Alvarado found him on the break (which had begun when Parham killed a Tar Heels possession by winning a defensive rebound), cutting the lead to 61-59. When North Carolina guard Kerwin Walton answered with his own 3, Devoe responded with another 3 to cut the lead back to 64-62. Alvarado tied the score at 64-64 with 4:08 remaining by banking in a jumper off the glass that may not have been exactly what he was planning.

“It’s not luck, it’s just one of those days,” Alvarado said. “Sometimes it’s going to miss and sometimes it’s going to go in.”

“This is between us,” Devoe told media after the game. “I think it was a little luck.”

A layup awarded to Alvarado on a goaltend at 3:24 gave the Jackets the lead at 66-65. Tech led the rest of the way, allowing just two points over the Tar Heels’ final seven possessions.

Credit: ACC

Georgia Tech guards Michael Devoe and Jose Alvarado have differing opinions on layup in closing minutes of win over North Carolina.

Credit: ACC

The few hundred in attendance, most audibly the pep band, offered their full-throated approval as Tech closed in on victory.

Forward Moses Wright, his legs spent as he played all but 54 seconds of the game, was difference-making at the end. While contending with the Tar Heels’ rotation of bigs — Pastner did look to center Rodney Howard for eight minutes — Wright scored 8 points on 3-for-10 shooting, well below his ACC-leading average of 19.6 points per game.

He blocked forward/center Day’Ron Sharpe’s shot at the basket with Tech ahead 68-65 and 1:41 remaining, and then poked the ball loose and out of bounds from Sharpe with 33.2 seconds left and the Tar Heels down 70-67, a call that went Tech’s way after video review.

After the game, Pastner recalled Wright’s first game against North Carolina, an 80-66 loss in Chapel Hill, N.C., in January 2018 in Wright’s freshman season. Subbed in, Wright barely made it a minute before Pastner yanked him out over a lack of effort, not to return until the game’s final minute. By comparison, Pastner didn’t feel safe Wednesday without Wright on the floor.

“I’m beyond words to describe how proud I am of Moses Wright,” Pastner said.

Pastner also made mention of guard/forward Jordan Usher, who contributed 11 of his 14 points in the first half as his teammates struggled to find the range after not having played since Jan. 20. After falling behind by as many as 11 in the first half, Tech closed to 35-29 at the half. Usher “saved us in the first half,” Pastner said.

Now, to go with the losses to Georgia State and Mercer — the first time Tech has lost to both in the same season — the Jackets can claim wins over Kentucky and North Carolina in the same season, also a team first. Pastner is now 3-2 against North Carolina — he’s 3-5 against Clemson — and the Jackets have beaten the Tar Heels back-to-back for the first time since winning four in a row in the 2009-10 and 10-11 seasons during coach Paul Hewitt’s tenure.

“Every win that we have is going to be really good for us, but those two teams have got history,” Alvarado said. “Like, really big-time history.”

For the Jackets, it was another result to confirm the team’s belief that Tech is worthy of its first NCAA tournament berth since 2010. Since the Georgia State and Mercer losses, Pastner has driven the team through a series of rigorous contact practices, trying to catch players up after he had avoided contact in the preseason to steer clear of the possibility of a positive COVID-19 test sidelining the entire team through contact tracing.

The difference in the team’s play over the past five games has been obvious.

“I think those first two games of the season, we had those in our memory that we don’t ever want to feel that again,” Devoe said. “Each game, we come out with that intensity and that fight and our toughness, and that’s what we do.”

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