It was, perhaps, the challenge of a team trying to meld its returnees and newcomers – figuring out roles and one another, finding a rhythm together, playing with the energy that coach Josh Pastner requires and, not least, forming a new team without linchpins Moses Wright and Jose Alvarado. (For Usher, it also was the challenge of playing 12 hours after taking an 8 a.m. operations management test that he described as “super hard.”)
“It doesn’t matter who we’re playing,” Pastner said. “If we’re playing a Division III team, a Division II team, if we’re playing Lamar, if we’re playing North Carolina or we’re playing Gonzaga or we’re playing the Atlanta Hawks – if we don’t have energy, it can be a recipe for disaster.”
Playing before an announced crowd of 3,625, Tech turned the ball over 10 times – an improvement on the 14 in the loss to Miami (Ohio) and 16 in the win over Stetson. But the Jackets squeezed five of them into an 8:20 stretch in the second half that helped the Cardinals climb back in the game. Lamar coach Alvin Brooks said he told his team at halftime to concentrate on chipping away at the 39-22 halftime lead through each four-minute segment.
“If we can get a little closer, cut the gap two or three points each segment, it could get interesting now,” Brooks said. “Once it gets close, then let’s see how good we are. And we did that.”
Lamar would not seem to be nearly the team that Miami is, and not only because the RedHawks crushed the Cardinals 104-75 on Saturday night. Miami is more experienced and plays in a more competitive conference. So for Lamar to have made things interesting against the defending ACC champions on their home court is not ideal, but perhaps an early-season growing pain to be endured for Pastner’s team. It was not costly Monday as it was the previous Tuesday against Miami, whom Tech led by six points at the two-minute mark before losing 72-69.
“We’ve just got to learn to keep not losing our energy,” Pastner said. “Can’t just be when things are going well. It’s got to be an all-time thing.”
Devoe delivered the Jackets on Monday. He was not as prolific in scoring, finishing with 11, but put his imprint on the game. He stopped a 7-0 Lamar run that cut the lead to six by stepping out for a 3-pointer at the 13:02 mark in the second half. When the lead was four with just under six minutes remaining, he drove from the right wing to the free-throw line, drawing the Lamar defense into the paint, before reversing the ball back to the wing to guard Deivon Smith, who made his only 3-pointer of the game. With just under two minutes left and Tech ahead 68-61, he drew a double team in the lane and slipped a bounce pass to Usher under the basket for a dunk. On Tech’s next possession, when Usher found Coleman cutting to the basket for a back-door layup and a 72-61 lead with 1:13 to play, the Jackets were finally home free. Devoe added seven rebounds and six assists against one turnover in 36 minutes.
“I thought they kept their poise and they do what really good veteran teams do,” Brooks said. “They responded when we closed the gap and made some plays.”
Coming off the bench, Coleman finished with a game-high 19 points on 6-for-8 shooting from the field, including 5-for-7 from 3-point range, and was turnover-free. Pastner trusted him with 30 minutes, third most on the team.
“My teammates, they’re constantly telling me to shoot the ball,” Coleman said. “When they get it to me, I know my job is to shoot it, especially when I have a wide-open look or a good look.”
Tech will play archrival Georgia in Athens on Friday. It will be a resumption of the rivalry, which took a one-year hiatus when the two teams were unable to schedule each other in the compacted 2020-21 season. While Pastner has won the graces of Tech fans by winning the ACC title, he is still 0-4 against the hated Bulldogs.
“We’ll have to be really, really good if we want to win the game on Friday,” Pastner said.
Almost certainly better than his team was Monday. Tech might hope that Usher doesn’t have any exams Friday morning.
“It killed me,” he said. “But can’t make any excuses That’s why we went to Tech: It’s an amazing degree, play in the ACC. We’ve just got to stand up as men and get more enthusiasm and win this game how we should. I’m making excuses by saying not making excuses, but you get the gist of it. You get the gist of it. We’ve got to be better.”