Georgia Tech falls just short against No. 13 Virginia

Playing near its peak for much of the game, Georgia Tech pushed No. 13 Virginia to the brink. Saturday night in Charlottesville, Va., however, the Yellow Jackets were unable to summon the final push, falling 64-62 to the Cavaliers in a loss that was at once both agonizing but also a little affirming, also.

“It shows how good we are, how good we’re going to be in the future,” guard Jose Alvarado said. “Because the team that we’ve got right here is really, really good. Unfortunately, we fell short (Saturday).”

Tech’s five-game winning streak came to an end at John Paul Jones Arena and its losing streak to the Cavaliers extended to seven. But, against arguably their strongest opponent of the season and a longtime nemesis, the Jackets led by as many as 11 in the second half and had a chance to win it on their final shot, a 3-point try at the buzzer from guard Michael Devoe that bounced off the front rim.

“Georgia Tech is a good team,” Virginia coach Tony Bennett said. “They’re really good. They’re playing with great confidence, they play fast and they’re quick.”

Led by the superlative play of Alvarado and guard/forward Jordan Usher, the Jackets (7-4 overall, 3-2 ACC) controlled play for much of the game, turning defensive stops into transition opportunities against the stingy Cavaliers.

“They exploit you with their quickness,” said Bennett, now 14-2 all-time against Tech. “This is the quickest team we’ve played 1-5.”

Tech took control of a back-and-forth first half in the final eight minutes, extending its lead to as many as nine points, and then grew it to 11 early on in the second half. Alvarado was a pain for the Cavaliers at both ends of the floor.

“I can’t say enough about the guy,” coach Josh Pastner said. “He’s awesome.”

Jumping into passing lanes and poking away the ball, Alvarado had six steals after digging out five in the win over No. 20 Clemson on Wednesday. At times, Pastner assigned him to guard UVA forward Sam Hauser, despite Alvarado giving up eight inches in height. Alvarado challenged shots and twice relieved the 6-foot-8 Hauser of the ball when he backed him down in the post.

“Alvarado’s got some of the quickest hands,” Bennett said.

Usher was a force again, following up his 21-point effort in the upset of Clemson with 19 points, six rebounds, three blocks and no turnovers. Usher harnessed his estimable explosiveness in attacks on the basket as he scored 15 points in the first half to help Tech to a 36-32 halftime lead.

Georgia Tech guard Jose Alvarado (10) shoots over Virginia guard Casey Morsell (13) during an NCAA college basketball game Saturday, Jan. 23, 2021, in Charlottesville, Va. (Andrew Shurtleff/The Daily Progress via AP, Pool)

Credit: Andrew Shurtleff

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Credit: Andrew Shurtleff

“He gave us a lift in the first half,” Pastner said.

The two combined for a highlight-reel alley-oop dunk at the 15:26 mark of the second half, with Alvarado threading a pass from well beyond the 3-point arc that Usher caught well above the basket and brought down for a dunk. It gave the Jackets a 49-38 lead, their largest of the game.

After the Cavaliers pushed back to cut the lead to six, Alvarado was isolated against 7-1 Jay Huff on the perimeter. Alvarado toyed with Huff on the dribble before pulling up and dropping a 3-pointer for a 54-45 lead with 10:08 to play.

From there, however, the game turned. Virginia ratcheted up its famed “Pack-line” defense. The Jackets, perhaps feeling the moment and also fatiguing (Alvarado, Wright, Usher and guard Bubba Parham all played 37 minutes or more), played with diminished cohesion and assuredness on offense.

After making 21 of 41 shots through the first 30 minutes, the Jackets were 3-for-12 in the final 10 minutes. Three of their shots were blocked by Huff. The Cavaliers outscored Tech 19-8 in the final 10 minutes. In that closing stretch, Hauser scored 11 of his season-high 22 points.

“In the first half, they kind of got whatever they wanted,” Hauser said. “The second half, we tried to make ‘em earn it more.”

Said Pastner, “We had a stretch late where I thought we dribbled a little too much, weren’t cutting with the same pace and speed.”

It was obviously not the result Tech sought. But, the Jackets gained the respect of the Cavaliers and, perhaps even more so than in wins over the likes of North Carolina and Clemson, demonstrated their merit as an NCAA tournament contender, albeit one with a lot of work to do. Prior to Saturday, Virginia opponents had shot 40.6% from the field and had a 1.2 assist/turnover ratio. Tech shot 45.3% from the field and had a 2.0 assist/turnover ratio (12/6). It was a seventh consecutive loss to the Cavaliers, but it felt different than the previous six, which Virginia won by an average of 15.8 points. In the three meetings prior to Saturday, Tech didn’t lead any past the 14-minute mark of the first half.

“Virginia’s a very good basketball team,” Pastner said, “but so are we.”

The challenge now for Tech will be to respond in a productive way to the loss with a matchup with Duke coming up Tuesday in Durham, N.C. The Blue Devils have dominated Tech for merely the past 24 years of the series. They’re 37-3 in that time and they’ve won the past 13. With a record of 5-5 and losses in its past three games, Duke appears more vulnerable in the past, but if the Jackets take satisfaction in nearly upsetting Virginia, the indulgence may end up costing them.

“We really have gotten better and improved, and we’ve got to keep moving in that direction,” Pastner said.