CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – Recognizing his team’s size deficiencies, Georgia Tech coach Josh Pastner has sought to compensate with an athletic and swift-footed lineup.
On Saturday, the Yellow Jackets ran into a team that was bigger, more talented and perhaps even faster. In its ACC opener, Tech was outplayed by a North Carolina team trying to avoid its fifth consecutive loss, taking a 75-59 defeat at the Smith Center.
“I think the team was pretty conditioned,” Tech guard Miles Kelly said. “I think it was just the fact that they were beating us in transition offense, and we couldn’t get good looks on offense.”
After humming at near-peak efficiency in a 79-77 win over rival Georgia on Tuesday at McCamish Pavilion, the Jackets were not able to replicate the performance, shooting 40.7% on 22-for-54 shooting from the field. A team that before Saturday was tied for 184th in Division I in scoring (72.1 points per game) and 261st in field-goal percentage (42.6%) found its level again.
Tech’s missed shots and 11 turnovers provided fuel for the Tar Heels’ transition game, which overran the Jackets with 17 fast-break points. Tech (6-4, 0-1) fell to 5-27 in the sky-blue chamber that is the Smith Center. North Carolina (6-4, 1-1), which reached the national championship game last season and returned the core of its roster, ended a four-game losing streak. Pastner’s record in ACC openers dropped to 3-4.
“They’ve got a really good basketball team,” Pastner said of the Tar Heels.
The game pivoted in the final minutes of the first half. Trailing through most of the first half, the Jackets almost were able to get to halftime to regroup and plot a second-half comeback. When center Rodney Howard made a jump shot from near the free-throw line with 3:20 left in the first half, the Jackets trailed 28-26. This after Tech’s play had been ragged enough that Pastner spent two of his four timeouts in the game’s first nine minutes to try to keep the Tar Heels from getting away.
However, it was the last time the Jackets scored in the half, often unable to create good scoring chances for each other. The Tar Heels offense closed out hot, going on an 11-0 run for a 39-26 halftime lead. The Jackets were never closer than 11 points in the second half.
“The game was won or lost in those last 3½ minutes there in the (first half) when North Carolina made that run, and I felt we kind of just fell off a cliff,” Pastner said.
Said North Carolina coach Hubert Davis, “That last three minutes of the first half, it’s the first time (this season) that I felt like it looked like Carolina basketball.”
Fortunately for the Jackets, they may not see a team as effective on the break as the Tar Heels the rest of the season. Their 17 fast-break points (to Tech’s three) tied for the most allowed by Tech this season. North Carolina delighted the Tar Heels faithful with its series of fast-break scores even as Tech’s strategy was designed to prevent them. More than usual, Pastner had players retreat immediately after shots on the offensive end, sacrificing opportunities at offensive rebounds (Tech finished with a single offensive rebound) to try to slow the Tar Heels break.
“They play at high-level speed in transition,” Kelly said. “That’s why our main focus was to send a lot of guys back so they can set up transition defense, but credit to them. They did well in transition offense.”
Dared to take 3-pointers by a defense that often played to deny the Jackets’ cuts to the basket rather than challenge perimeter shots, Tech was 9-for-26 (34.6%) from 3-point range, not a bad rate but not enough to overthrow the Tar Heels when up against so many other obstacles. Kelly and guard Deebo Coleman were a combined 6-for-13 from 3-point range. Kelly and forward Jalon Moore tied for the team’s scoring lead with 15 points each. For both players, it was their fifth consecutive game in double figures. Pastner called it a mystery that his team isn’t shooting the 3-pointer better (now 30.3% for the season) after having shot it effectively in the preseason.
“We just haven’t shot the 3-point shot well enough to the level that I thought we would,” Pastner said. “We’re due to do that.”
North Carolina 75, Georgia Tech 59
In a game where the Jackets were granted eight free throws to the Tar Heels’ 24 (Tech was called for 20 fouls to North Carolina’s 11, and it was 14-3 six minutes into the second half) and also played much of the game without starting post player Ja’von Franklin (groin injury) and guard Deivon Smith (ankle), Tech couldn’t afford to squander chances elsewhere.
However, the Jackets couldn’t avoid mistakes. Whether it was committing three turnovers on possessions directly out of timeouts, Howard and Kelly misreading each other twice on passes on the perimeter or the defense allowing 6-foot-11, 235-pound Armando Bacot to be the first player down the floor for a fast-break basket, the team picked to finish last in the ACC didn’t give itself much of a chance to steal out of Chapel Hill with an upset.
“I think we don’t have a lot of margin for error,” Pastner said. “We’ve got to play really well.”
The Tar Heels’ four-game losing streak was a historic albatross. With losses to Iowa State, Alabama, Indiana and Virginia Tech – three Top 25 teams and the defending ACC champion – North Carolina became the first AP preseason No. 1 in the poll’s history to lose four consecutive games that season.
Before Saturday, the Tar Heels were shooting 29.2% from 3-point range, 319th in Division I and well off their 35.8% rate from last season when they reached the national title game. North Carolina fared no better from behind the arc against Tech (3-for-13 for 23.1%), but Tech’s offensive inefficiency, its inability to keep the Tar Heels off the offensive glass (a season-long issue for Pastner’s team) and the Jackets’ ineffective transition defense more than offset that shortcoming.
“You have to cut the cord from what happened last year,” Davis said. “You have to do that. And I think in some ways, we haven’t done that. I felt like (Saturday) we took a step forward in doing that.”
Pastner said he planned to address the offense in the coming week. With students in the midst of final exams, Tech does not play again until Saturday (at home at 2 p.m. against Alabama State in its final non-conference game of the season). Conditioning is another area he wants to address.
“We’ve got to clean up when teams are cutting us or playing off of us or sagging,” Pastner said. “We can’t get in a rut or stuck. Our continuation of our cutting and the speed of our cuts have to remain the same whether someone’s guarding us tightly or not.”