Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets head coach Josh Pastner instructs his team during the first half of a NCAA college basketball game against the Florida A&M Rattlers at Georgia Tech's McCamish Pavilion in Atlanta, Friday, December 18, 2020. The Jackets beat the Rattlers, 74-64. (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)
Looking to regain its stride after falling to No. 15 Florida State on Tuesday, Georgia Tech defeated Florida A&M Friday night 74-64 at McCamish Pavilion. The degree to which the Yellow Jackets improved is open for question, though.
The Rattlers kept the game close against a team which enjoyed virtually every advantage in talent and resources, making the Jackets sweat in a game that wasn’t decided until the final two minutes. Tech avoided its first loss against a MEAC opponent in 34 meetings.
In a game in which coach Josh Pastner had hoped to address flaws revealed in their first five games, such as 3-point defense, their own 3-point shooting and the play of their backup post players, there was some progress, though not as much as one would want to see against an inferior opponent.
“If we play how we played (Friday) against UNC (Dec. 30), we’re not going to win,” forward Moses Wright said. “So we’ve got to come out with a whole different mindset. And I know that we’re going to come out with a whole different mindset come ACC play, but we just can’t flip it on and off, including myself.”
Tech (3-3 overall) relied on the scoring of Wright (game-high 24 points on 9-for-17 shooting) and, among other things, the rebounding of 5-10 guard Bubba Parham (game-high eight rebounds) to extract itself from Florida A&M (1-5). Trailing by as many as 17 early in the second half, the Rattlers cut Tech’s lead to five points, the last time with 3:57 remaining, but could not draw closer. Florida A&M’s 3-point shooting – 7-for-17 for the game, including 6-for-11 in the second half – kept its hopes alive.
Pastner found things he liked with the performance, starting with the fact that Tech won. (Assuming wins is not a luxury, particularly given that the Jackets lost to Mercer in their previous appearance on Bobby Cremins Court.) A limited number of turnovers (10) and a team-first approach on offense (18 assists on 27 field goals) were chief among them. Guard Michael Devoe was another highlight, with 15 points, eight assists (tying his career high) and four rebounds.
“The two issues I had was, one, our second half defensively,” Pastner said. “First half, we were fine. It’s the second half. And then we had multiple times to really bury them, and we just didn’t do it. We didn’t do it.”
The 3-point barrage in the second half from the Rattlers continued Tech’s ineffective defense of the 3-point arc, as opponents were shooting 40.0% from 3-point range in the first five games. Last season, the Jackets were seventh in Division I in 3-point field-goal defense at 28.5%. Florida A&M guards Jalen Speer and Jai Clark and forward Johnny Brown were a combined 6-for-9 from 3-point range in the second half. Guard M.J. Randolph, who dinged Georgia for 21 points in an 85-75 loss to the Bulldogs Nov. 29 loss in Athens, finished with 17 points, 10 in the second half.
“He hit a couple of tough shots,” Pastner said of Randolph.
Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com
Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com
Besides the eight rebounds – his high for his 37 games in a Tech uniform – Parham contributed some big plays on offense. On the first and third instances that the Rattlers reduced the lead to five in the second half, Parham answered on the ensuing possession with a 3-pointer. Later, after Florida A&M reduced the lead to 64-59 with 3:57 to go, Parham found forward Khalid Moore in the corner for a 3-pointer to begin to put out the fire on the Rattlers. Moore had kept the possession alive with an offensive rebound of a miss by Wright. They were Moore’s only points of the night.
“I thought Bubba had a really good second half,” Pastner said.
In the first half, Parham had taken a couple particularly long-distance 3-pointers and was 0-for-3 from 3-point range with two points. In the second, he scored 11, including 3-for-4 from 3-point range. He played 35 minutes with no turnovers. Pastner pulled aside Parham just before the start of the second half to encourage him to not look for his shot, that if he played the right way, the ball would come back to him in a position to score.
“And it did,” Parham said. “I think I took one that I felt like I can make, but at the time wasn’t a good shot; I admit to it. So, he just told me to just play honest, play the right way, play hard, and the ball will find me.”
His rebounding was an attempt, he said, to give his team energy as it played before a virtually empty arena. It didn’t help, either, that point guard and catalyst Jose Alvarado was not himself, having lost two teeth after he was elbowed in practice on Thursday and then sleeping little and missing shootaround Friday in order to rest.
“Just do what it takes to win and get some energy going with my team,” Parham said.
As a team, the Jackets were 9-for-22 from 3-point range (40.9%) after shooting 29.5% in the first five games. Tech finished hot after making only two of its first 10 3-point tries Friday night.
“Find your teammates in rhythm, find them in spots where they can succeed,” Parham said. “The pass is important, for sure. Not a lot of people focus on that, but the pass going to a shooter is just as important as the shooter shooting.”
After Florida State’s size was troublesome against Tech’s small lineup, Pastner gave playing to big men Saba Gigiberia and Rodney Howard. Gigiberia couldn’t avoid fouling, with four fouls in six minutes, but did help on the glass and in challenging shots. He also scored his first career points, on a first-half putback. Howard played one minute, though Pastner said it was not a reflection on his play. Howard came in at the end of an 8-0 Florida A&M run in the first half, and Pastner changed the lineup in a timeout and didn’t go back to him later.
Pastner acknowledged that one or both will be needed at some point when ACC play resumes with the North Carolina game and that they both need to continue to develop.
“Before we get to the ACC, we’ve got two more weeks or so to really continue to develop and grind, even if that’s within practice,” Pastner said. “So they’ve just got to keep getting better and keep getting ready.”
Tech’s next game is Sunday against Delaware State at 6 p.m. at McCamish Pavilion.
Ken Sugiura is a sports columnist at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Formerly the Georgia Tech beat reporter, Sugiura started at the AJC in 1998 and has covered a variety of beats, mostly within sports.