A season that portends to be unlike any other offered a historic – albeit crushing – season opener for Georgia Tech. With McCamish Pavilion reconfigured for COVID-19 protocols, the Yellow Jackets opened their season Wednesday night against Georgia State in the teams’ first regular-season meeting since December 2008.

Against that backdrop, the Jackets and Panthers engaged in the first quadruple overtime in either team’s history, with Georgia State outlasting Tech 123-120 in a game that didn’t end until Thanksgiving had arrived.

“We just could never put them away,” said Tech coach Josh Pastner, who directed the Jackets behind a face shield. “It was almost like the basketball gods said, ‘OK, Georgia State’s winning this game.’”

“I’ll be honest with you,” Georgia State coach Rob Lanier said. “I don’t know how many overtimes we had. I’m really proud of our group.”

Credit: ACC

The Jackets and Panthers engaged in the first quadruple overtime in either team’s history, with Georgia State outlasting Tech 123-120.

Credit: ACC

Georgia State (1-0) took receipt of exactly what it had hoped for when it arranged a three-game series with Tech (0-1) this past May. Under Lanier, the second-year coach, the Panthers took down their power-conference neighbor in its own arena, their first-ever win over an ACC opponent and first against Tech after 14 consecutive defeats. The previous regular-season victory for Georgia State against Tech came in January 1976.

The Panthers, picked to win their division of the Sun Belt Conference, won despite taking 21 fewer free throws than the Jackets (38 to 59) and making only 21 of them. Guard Justin Roberts led Georgia State with 26 points, including 5-for-11 shooting from 3-point range, to go with nine rebounds and six assists. He was one of four players, along with forward Eliel Nsoseme (22 on 10-for-13 shooting), guards Corey Allen (22) and Kane Williams (21) to reach 20 points, the first time in team history that four Panthers scored 20 or more in a game.

“We turned it over too much, we gave up too many offensive rebounds and we fouled a lot, but we showed a lot of heart and a lot of resilience and a great deal of togetherness,” Lanier said. “So it’s a good sign for us that we’ve got a chance to have a really good team.”

‘There’s no excuse’

While merely one game, it was nonetheless a disheartening result for Tech fans, to say nothing for the team itself. After a strong regular-season finish lifted the Jackets to their first winning record in ACC play since 2004 and the team returned four starters, Tech has been touted as a legitimate contender for the team’s first NCAA tournament berth since 2010.

But, without any warm-up exhibition games and with Pastner conducting several non-contact practices in the preseason in an attempt to avoid a team-wide quarantine in the event of a positive COVID-19 test, the Jackets were not their sharpest, and that was costly, although the Panthers scuffled plenty, too.

“My objective was for the players, the student-athletes, I wanted to make sure that we got to a game to play – for them,” Pastner said, “with knowing that you’re going to sacrifice things within practice and maybe a little bit of preparation on being as ready to go. But we’re in the middle of a pandemic. Everything’s new and there’s no excuse on that.”

On offense, the Jackets did not move the ball to Pastner’s standards. Possessions were heavy on dribbling and light on passing as reflected in their meager 12 assists on 36 field goals.

“That just means the ball was sticking way too much,” Pastner said. “That’s a terrible stat, so we’ve got to be better in that area. We’ve always prided ourselves on the open man’s the go-to man, and (Wednesday), that was not the case.”

On defense, Georgia State repeatedly outraced the Jackets down the floor for easy baskets, many times after Tech had scored at the other end. Tech also felt the absence of two-time ACC all-defensive team member James Banks, as the Panthers attacked the basket in the half-court.

“We’ve got do a better job on defense, and that’s no excuse for us,” point guard Jose Alvarado said.

Missed chances to win

Tech had any number of lost opportunities to count, whether it was letting go of an early 13-5 lead, turning the ball over 22 times, scoring no points in the final three possessions of regulation, shooting 18-for-31 from the line in regulation, missing three shots and turning the ball over twice in the final two minutes of the first overtime or, most painfully, letting slip a four-point lead in the final 20 seconds of the third overtime.

“I lost the game. Put this one on my shoulders,” said Alvarado, who missed his only free throw of the game (he was 11-for-12) with six seconds left in the third overtime that would have put the Jackets up three. " I make that free throw, there’s a chance that we really might win this game. So I told my guys, ‘Yo, if you think it’s anybody’s fault, blame it on me. I’ll take the blame.’ Because I’m the guard for this team, and I’m a senior, and I missed a big-time shot.”

Going for naught was a standout performance by forward Moses Wright, who piled up 31 points and 20 rebounds in 53 minutes of play. He became just the second Tech player to have a 30-20 game (following Jim Caldwell in 1964 against Florida State).

“My ankles hurt, my shoulders hurt, I want to get in the cold tub,” Wright said. “My whole body’s hurt, honestly. But we’ve just got to do recovery and get right back into it. We’ve got Mercer Friday. No time to mourn over this. Got to get back into it.”

Wright’s play, at times dominant, combined with limited debuts by big men Rodney Howard (a transfer from Georgia) and freshman Saba Gigiberia (the two combined for three rebounds in 15 minutes), put Pastner in a position to rely heavily on the senior. Pastner put Howard into the starting lineup, but he appeared to be feeling his way through the game, as might be expected.

Tech did put up a commendable fight particularly considering that Pastner subbed out players in the four overtimes only when a player got hurt (forward Khalid Moore in the first extra period) or fouled out (Wright and Alvarado in the fourth). Lanier used 10 players in the extra periods. Wright cramped up at one point, he said, “but I was like, I’ve got to fight through this.”

Tired legs for Jackets

It was not an ideal night to have four players log 47 minutes or more and come up empty, as the Jackets will play Mercer Friday night back at McCamish. Alvarado was on the floor for 58 of the 60 minutes, amassing 29 points (tying a career high), 10 rebounds and six steals against five turnovers. Tech’s media guide does not recognize a record for minutes played in a game, but given that Tech has never played beyond triple overtime (55 minutes), he would seem to be the record holder.

“My legs – hey, I’m a basketball player; I’ve got to get through it,” Alvarado said. “But they hurt.”

In the final overtime period, Tech took a 116-114 lead with two minutes remaining on a pair of Wright free throws, but back-to-back turnovers enabled the Panthers to put together a 5-0 run for a 119-116 lead that they held on to to finally claim victory. Down 122-120, the Jackets had a chance to send the game to a fifth overtime after Corey Allen missed the second of two free throws with 15 seconds left, but Alvarado could not score on a drive to the basket. He then committed a foul on the rebound.

After Georgia State’s Jojo Toppin missed the second of two free throws with 3.6 seconds left, Tech guard Bubba Parham’s half-court try to tie the game at the buzzer was off target, ricocheting off the backboard.

“We always say, ‘Who’s going to play the hardest the longest?’” Lanier said. “That’s our thing. Who’s going to play the hardest for the longest period of time. They were saying it in the timeouts and in the third and fourth overtime: Who’s going to play the hardest the longest? And tonight, we made just enough plays to get it done.”

Georgia Tech guard Jose Alvarado (right) sits dejected on the bench after the game.  “Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com”
Georgia Tech guard Jose Alvarado (right) sits dejected on the bench after the game. “Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com”

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

Couldn’t close down third overtime

Despite the oft-sloppy play, Tech still had the opportunity to sneak away with a win in the third overtime.

The Jackets went ahead 107-103 on two Alvarado free throws with 1:21 remaining when Georgia State’s bench was assessed a technical foul after Toppin lost the ball going up for a shot, but no foul was called. Tech had the opportunity to go up six or more, but guard Michael Devoe lost the ball on the dribble to Panthers guard Kane Williams, who scored on a layup to cut the lead to 107-105. (Devoe was off his usual efficient form, shooting 3-for-13 from 3-point range and turning the ball over eight times.)

Alvarado returned the lead to four (109-105) with two more free throws with 21 seconds left, but GSU guard Justin Roberts banked in a 3-pointer with 12.1 seconds left to cut the lead to 109-108. The Panthers put Alvarado back on the line, but he could only make one of two – his only miss from the line in the game.

Georgia State freshman guard Collin Moore, fouled with 1.3 seconds left, made two free throws to send the game to a fourth overtime.

In his post-game comments, Alvarado was clearly taking the defeat hard. He said he had warned teammates about, no matter the pedigree of the opponent, how the Jackets would be in for a dogfight. Alvarado has absorbed that truth in home losses to mid-major opponents such as Ball State last year, Gardner-Webb the year before and Grambling and Wright State the year before that.

“This stings because, like I said, I’ve been here too long and I already know how this goes,” he said.

Also from Alvarado: “This is our home court. We just let somebody just come in here and just steal everything.”

It ought not be forgotten that the fact that the Jackets and Panthers could play was a success. No fewer than 32 games scheduled for Wednesday involving Division I teams were canceled or postponed for COVID-related reasons. The environment at McCamish reflected the circumstances. Spectator seating behind both benches was removed to give players socially-distanced seating, some as far as 11 rows back. Pastner’s three assistants sat spaced apart along the sideline, each wearing masks. The scorer’s table was behind plexiglass. Fans were spread out throughout the lower bowl. Canned crowd noise played over the speakers. Before the game, as starters were announced and emerged from the huddle to give referees and opposing coaches the customary fist bump, Tech assistant coach Eric Reveno positioned himself to intercept the players to keep them from extending the greetings.

“Everything was new,” Pastner said. “This is different. But there’s no excuse.”

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