Georgia Tech falls behind to Virginia early, can’t recover

CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. – On the precipice of getting run out of the gym, Georgia Tech gave a worthy account of itself in the second half of its Saturday afternoon game against Virginia. The end result, though, was familiar.

The Yellow Jackets made a run at an emerging Cavaliers team, but lost 63-53 at John Paul Jones Arena. The Jackets’ 15 turnovers, particularly when compared with Virginia’s 10, were complicit. Tech now has turned the ball over at least 14 times four times in the past five games, losing three of them. In ACC play before Saturday, the Jackets were averaging the second most turnovers the league, at 13.3 per game.

“We were pretty good last year at taking care of the ball and the year before, but we haven’t done a good job with our turnovers, and that’s something that we’ve got to hurry and clean up before it gets too late,” coach Josh Pastner said.

The feel of the game Saturday was not dissimilar from many of Tech’s defeats in ACC play, in which the Jackets gave effort and kept the game close into the final four or eight minutes, only to come up short. Down by as many as 17 points in the first half, Tech closed the lead to as few as two points in the second half before succumbing. In Tech’s 79-70 loss at Miami on Wednesday, it was the opposite. The Jackets led by as many as 14 points in the first half before the Hurricanes overcame them late in the first half and after halftime.

“It definitely is frustrating because I know what type of caliber team we are,” guard Michael Devoe said. “Especially when you see that second half, the way we came out and played.”

Virginia (16-9, 10-5 ACC) won its fourth game in a row as it begins to look increasingly like a potential NCAA Tournament team. The Cavaliers also continued their dominance of the Jackets, winning their 17th matchup with Tech (10-14, 3-10) out of the past 19. That includes nine in a row in John Paul Jones Arena. At Tech, Josh Pastner is now 0-8 against Virginia and counterpart Tony Bennett. The Cavaliers remain the only team that Tech has yet to defeat in Pastner’s tenure, now in its sixth season. Forward Jordan Usher called the Cavaliers the toughest team they face in the ACC.

“Definitely, with how they play super-disciplined,” Usher said. “Our defense kind of thrives on getting steals and moving around with energy, and they play the whole shot clock down (on offense).”

Tech practically secured defeat with a feeble effort in the first half. The Jackets were not effective at passing to create open shots, relying on one-on-one play, which often resulted in rushed shots late in the shot clock and two shot-clock violations. Other times, they failed to read other, resulting in turnovers off missed passes. Pastner was at such a loss early on that midway through the half, he had subbed all of his starters, a rarity for a coach who typically rides his starters heavily.

“We just couldn’t score,” he said. “I usually never do that. I was just trying to find something.”

The Jackets went into halftime down 32-19, their lowest-scoring first half of the season. They shot 42.1% from the field, not a bad rate against Virginia, but turned the ball over 10 times in 29 possessions.

“I think (the ball) should have got pushed around a little more,” Usher said. “We settled for a couple jump shots. We should have moved it around, for sure.”

Tech played much better in the second half. Playing with more energy on defense and moving the ball better on offense, the Jackets steadily drew down the lead. Set up by teammates, center Rodney Howard scored 10 points (six in the second half), his career high in ACC play. Howard came off the bench to play 29 minutes as Jordan Meka started in his place after two effective games on defense.

Coming off the bench, “I felt more comfortable,” Howard said. “Hopefully this game I can step forward and continue to produce.”

Devoe scored a team-high 17 points and led the comeback in the second half, making a 3-pointer with 5:44 to play to cut the lead to 49-47, finishing off a 9-3 run. Virginia restored order as forward Jayden Gardner scored back-to-back baskets, part of his game-high 26 points. Tech could not get closer than five points after that, scoring only two points in the final 2:05.

Cavaliers guard Kihei Clark stuck a couple 3-point daggers into the Jackets, once to answer a pair of Usher free throws that cut the lead to 46-42 with 8:27 left and at the 2:34 mark with Virginia holding a 54-49 lead.

“You’ve got to give him credit,” Pastner said. “He’s a winner.”

The Cavaliers, wary of Tech’s recent performance from 3-point range, averaging almost nine per game and making 36% of its attempts in the past five games, challenged the Jackets at the line and allowed them to take only 12 3-point tries, making four. Freshman guard Deebo Coleman, who was 11-for-25 from 3-point range in the past five games, was 0-for-1 on Saturday.

“They weren’t leaving Deebo at all,” Usher said.

Tech again dealt with a significant free-throw deficit. The Cavaliers shot 23 free throws (making 21), although six of them were in the final 1:06 when the Jackets began to foul intentionally. The Jackets shot 10 free throws, making seven. Tech started the game having shot 65 fewer free throws in ACC play than its opponents, the widest deficit in the league. Pastner said he would take the high road and not share his opinion of the officiating, an obvious indication of his discontent.

“The bottom line is we had some opportunities, and those turnovers ended up biting us in the rear,” he said.