Two days after a humbling loss to Georgia State, Georgia Tech welcomed another in-state opponent to McCamish Pavilion and lost again.
This time, it was Mercer. Playing loose 3-point defense against a team they expected to rely heavily on that shot, the Yellow Jackets were scorched from behind the arc in an 83-73 defeat Friday night.
The two home losses to in-state mid-major opponents constitute a disastrous start for the Jackets, who entered the season recognized as a contender for their first NCAA tournament berth since 2010 following their first winning record in ACC play since 2004. Tech is 0-2 for the first time since the 1974-75 season.
Coach Josh Pastner accepted responsibility for the losses, absolving his players.
“The fans have every right to be upset,” Pastner said. “And the person to be upset at is myself, not the players. It’s me.”
Mercer was 12-for-25 from 3-point range, many of them on clean looks at the basket. Less than 48 hours after losing in four overtimes to the Panthers, Tech had difficulty staying in front of the Bears’ array of perimeter shooters and were often a step slow.
“That’s all we talked about, was take the 3 out,” Pastner said. “Just no 3′s. Our energy level just was not there tonight.”
Against Georgia State and again against Mercer, the defense has been almost unfathomably weak. The Panthers’ transition game was too fast for the Jackets on Wednesday and then the Bears manipulated Tech to create open shots. Last season, Tech finished 33rd nationally in defensive field-goal percentage at 39.9%. Georgia State shot 48.8% and Mercer made 44.3% of its shots, including 12-for-25 from 3-point range.
Mercer had lost nine consecutive games to power-conference competition before Friday. Coach Greg Gary is in his second season at Mercer, having come from an assistant position at Purdue. Gary replaced Bob Hoffman, who most notably led the Bears to an NCAA tournament upset over Duke in 2014 but was fired at the end of the 2018-19 season.
In the first five minutes of the second half, “I could see in our guys’ eyes that their minds were made up,” Gary said. “They had a lot of toughness. It’s great for us to springboard off this. This is one win. Let’s not lose our minds about it. How we came in here and won, how did we do it? Because we were tough and shared the basketball.”
Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC
Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC
The Jackets clearly miss having the shot-blocking and shot-altering presence of James Banks, who backboned the 1-3-1 zone that has been Tech’s trademark in Pastner’s tenure, now in its fifth season.
Without big men ready to fill that void – Pastner said new post players Rodney Howard, Saba Gigiberia and Jordan Meka are behind in their development because the team had two weeks of non-contact practices out of concern about a positive COVID-19 team sidelining the entire team because of contact tracing – Tech has mostly played man to man. The Jackets had one block Friday after averaging 4.6 per game last season.
“I just don’t think defensively at any position we’ve been good,” Pastner said. “We have to be better defensively at all spots.”
A team that counts on its effort as part of its strategy had no such advantage against Mercer, which on Wednesday defeated Division II North Georgia on Wednesday. Wright, after logging 53 minutes against the Panthers, scored a team-high 20 points on 9-for-16 shooting but could only bring down five rebounds in 39 minutes of play.
Guard Jose Alvarado was on the floor for 31 minutes, an atypically low total that reflected his energy level. Where their aggressive play to the basket had created 31 free throws in regulation and 59 overall, the Jackets managed only 11 free throws against Mercer.
“I feel like we’re doing things right sometimes and other times we relax,” Wright said “And then those times we relax, it really shows.”
Beyond fatigue, the loss impacted Tech’s ability to prepare for Mercer. To aid recovery, Pastner chose to not practice the team on Thursday, instead introducing the game plan to the team only with a video review and then a walk-through on Friday.
“It’s real different walking through it than actually running through it,” Wright said.
Tech’s fate seemed clear shortly after halftime. Down 38-35 at the start of the second half, the Jackets’ first three possessions created low-percentage shots, all misses, followed by a 3-pointer from guard Michael Devoe, then a turnover on a bad pass from Alvarado and then a shot-clock violation when Howard couldn’t convert a close-range shot, followed by seven more empty possessions in a row with a series of shots that seemed poor decisions. The offense has looked out of sync through most of the first two games.
“This is definitely a weird time for us,” Wright said.
Unlike Georgia State, which returned four starters from a team that went 19-13 and was picked to win its division of the Sun Belt Conference, Mercer didn’t bring the same upset juice to McCamish. The Bears were picked to finish fourth in the Southern Conference, a perennial one-bid league.
Still, Mercer started hot and held on in the second half, aided by Tech’s at-times questionable shot selection and lax defense. The Bears took a 12-4 lead in the first 4:03 and led for all but 47 seconds the rest of the way. Tech fought back into a 29-29 tie at the 2:52 mark of the first half, but Mercer forward Felipe Haase answered with a 3-pointer less than a minute later.
Haase and guard Neftali Alvarez both scored 17 to lead Mercer. Haase, a transfer from South Carolina, was 5-for-11 on 3-pointers. Alvarez had a game-high nine assists (against two turnovers) with eight rebounds.
“He managed the game beautifully, I thought,” Gary said of Alvarez. “He was tough, made the right decisions.”
With a week before the Kentucky, Pastner vowed to make adjustments, saying that the two games had exposed his team in some ways that coaches will need to fix.
“We’ll figure it out,” he said. “We’ve figured it out before, we’ll figure it out again and we’ll just have to regroup and have course correction ready to go for next Sunday.”