Georgia Tech falls to Wake Forest as shooting woes continue

Georgia Tech forward Jordan Usher goes to the basket against Wake Forest in a Jan. 19, 2022 game at McCamish Pavilion (Danny Karnik/Georgia Tech Athletics)

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Georgia Tech forward Jordan Usher goes to the basket against Wake Forest in a Jan. 19, 2022 game at McCamish Pavilion (Danny Karnik/Georgia Tech Athletics)

Not the return of center Rodney Howard nor the appearance of a team that Georgia Tech had defeated without ceasing could stop the Yellow Jackets’ slide Wednesday night.

Errant shooting and poor defense of the basket prompted the Jackets’ ninth loss in 11 games, an 80-64 defeat to Wake Forest at McCamish Pavilion. The Demon Deacons broke a 14-game road losing streak to the Jackets, having last defeated Tech in Atlanta in 2004.

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After the game, coach Josh Pastner seemed at a loss, particularly for the way the Jackets defended, allowing the Demon Deacons to make 78.1% of their two-point field-goal attempts (25-for-32), a season high for both Wake Forest and Tech opponents. While scoring inside the arc is a strength for the Demon Deacons, Wednesday’s two-point field-goal rate was, in fact, the highest single-game average for any ACC team this year. Demon Deacons guard Alondes Williams, the ACC’s leading scorer, tallied 19 points on 8-for-13 shooting, including 7-for-8 on two-point shots.

“Defensively, we’re not really good right now,” Pastner said. “That’s been a staple of our program. I just have not done a good job on that, obviously. If we’re not playing great defense, that falls right on the head coach.”

Particularly with the small lineup that he employed against Boston College and North Carolina with Howard out with an ankle injury, Pastner was willing to accept opposing post players piling up baskets as long as the Jackets were defending the 3-point shot. But, on Wednesday, the Jackets did not do better with Howard back in the lineup for the first time since Dec. 21 and were also poor in transition defense, as the Demon Deacons consistently got up the floor ahead of the Jackets to set up easy scores. Wake Forest was 18-for-22 on dunks and layups. Tech, by comparison, was 13-for-24.

Pastner called it the team’s “glaring issue.”

The other clear weak spot was defending the rim in half-court defense. Ball movement and player movement and the inability of Howard and backup Saba Gigiberia to effectively challenge Wake Forest close to the basket led to a flurry of dunks and uncontested layups.

Pastner lamented that teams were “scoring in the paint on us just with such ease, whether we’re big or small. And the lack of shot blocking right now is a big deal.”

Tech (7-10 overall, 1-6 ACC) was led by guard Michael Devoe, who scored a team-high 22 points, but was 2-for-8 from 3-point range. He is now 11-for-41 (26.8%) on 3-point tries in ACC play, compared to 48.2% (27-for-56) in non-conference play. After a couple of misses in the second half, Devoe clapped his hands in frustration.

“It's a frustrating time right now, but one thing about it is, you've got to stand tall as a man and as a team and as brothers," Devoe said.

The senior acknowledged that he needed to shoot better. “I’ve got to be more of a leader, so a lot of it falls on me.”

Another cold streak did in the Jackets against the Demon Deacons. With just under 14 minutes remaining in the second half, Tech guard Kyle Sturdivant hit a pull-up jumper to give the Jackets a 51-49 lead. Tech had scored on five consecutive possessions, including 3-pointers from Devoe and forward Jordan Usher.

But the Jackets, for whom prolonged scoring droughts have accompanied their skid, went dry. Wake Forest went on a 20-5 run, taking a 69-56 lead with 5:51 to play. Tech made two of 11 shots in that span and turned the ball over four times.

Wake Forest 80, Georgia Tech 64

Pastner, looking for a solution, subbed out four players at one stoppage after having subbed all five in and out on three occasions in the first half. Even with Howard available, Pastner tried the small lineup that the Jackets had used in the two previous games against Boston College and North Carolina.

“I was just trying to find a group,” Pastner said. “I felt we were a little lethargic on some things. I was just trying to find a rhythm.”

Nothing was slowing down the Demon Deacons, who were scoring with ease in transition and in their half-court offense. Of Wake Forest’s 33 baskets, 23 were assisted.

“I just feel like we have to lock in more defensively,” Devoe said.

Wake Forest (15-4, 5-3) continued its surge in the second season of coach Steve Forbes, who was actually not at the arena because of an illness. Head-coaching duties were handled by assistant coach Brooks Savage. After a 3-15 league record last year and no winning ACC record since the 2009-10 season, the Demon Deacons continued their climb.

“Wake Forest is really good,” Pastner said. “They’re an NCAA Tournament team.”

Pastner was far from abandoning hope for the season. He was much later to the post-game media availability than usual, as he had been meeting with his staff to figure out solutions, a meeting that would last much longer after the news conference. Tech’s next game is Sunday at home against Clayton State, a game added to replace the Alabama A&M game postponed and ultimately canceled due to the Jackets’ COVID-19 pause.

“I’ve got to figure it out,” Pastner said.