GREENSBORO, N.C. — The ball flew past Jose Alvarado, bounced once and headed to the opposite sideline, Georgia Tech’s control of its ACC Tournament quarterfinal game going with it.
“I just saw the ball, and I was like, I’ve got to take off,” Alvarado said.
Jordan Usher, responsible for the errant inbounds pass after he and Alvarado appeared to misread each other, held faith in his teammate to cover the mistake.
“I knew Jose was going to get it because that’s my guy,” Usher said.
Alvarado did indeed chase down the ball after it bounced again just shy of the sideline, in one motion grabbing it and passing to teammate Bubba Parham as he hopped out of bounds. Parham dribbled once and passed out of Miami’s backcourt trap back to Alvarado, who threw ahead to Usher for the last of his team-high 15 points. With that – and a costly turnover by Miami on the ensuing inbounds when Kameron McGusty stepped over the end line – Tech was home free, owners of its first berth in the tournament semifinals since 2010 with an ungainly 70-66 win over the Hurricanes on Thursday afternoon at the Greensboro Coliseum.
A little out of sync and slow in its first game since Friday, the Jackets traveled an unusual path to victory in a matchup of the fourth-seeded Jackets and the 13th-seeded Hurricanes. The ingredients included perhaps the poorest game of the season from freshly minted ACC player of the year Moses Wright, critical contributions from Tech’s backups, a scary knee-to-knee collision that temporarily knocked Alvarado out of the game, a seven-point Miami lead with 18 minutes remaining and five harrowing turnovers in the final 2:30 that fueled a Hurricanes rally from down 66-58 at the three-minute mark to 68-66 with 24.7 seconds left when Alvarado made his frantic rescue of Usher’s pass.
“I knew Jose was getting it,” said coach Josh Pastner, who earned his first ACC Tournament victory after losing his first three. “Anyone else, it might have gone out of bounds. But not Jose Alvarado. He’s made so many winning plays that don’t show up in the box score, I can’t even put a number on it.”
In winning its seventh game in a row, Tech (16-8) earned a semifinal matchup with No. 1-seed Virginia, which hung on to beat No. 8-seed Syracuse 72-69 in the game before the Tech-Miami quarterfinal. The Cavaliers swept the Jackets in the regular season to extend their win streak in the series to eight games. They are the only ACC team that Pastner’s teams have yet to defeat.
Virginia won both games this season despite the Jackets leading for 53 of the 80 minutes of the two games and holding an 11-point lead second-half lead in their 64-62 loss to the Cavaliers in Charlottesville, Va., on Jan. 23.
“We definitely owe them one, and getting a chance to get it back, that’s the basketball gods saying, ‘There’s your chance, go get it,’” Usher said. “I’m excited for it.”
Tech’s performance against Miami (10-17) was not the worthiest of tributes to the hoops deities. Perhaps because of the layoff from earning the double bye that enabled them to sit out the first two rounds, the Jackets appeared out of sync and disconnected. Miami guards Isaiah Wong and McGusty found gaps in the Tech defense and penetrated, combining to score 37 points.
Tech players had difficulty reading each other and setting each other up for open shots, normally a strength. Wright was uncharacteristically off his game. Three days after being named conference player of the year, Wright scored a season-low seven points on 3-for-9 shooting and fouled out with 2:30 left in the game. He was in for 25 minutes, a season low against ACC competition.
His fourth foul encapsulated his struggles. Wright tried to pass to forward Khalid Moore, who was not expecting the ball and did not come to it. Wright dove to the floor to recover the loose ball and picked up his fourth foul in the process, with 14:38 left in the second half. He pounded the court in frustration.
Center Rodney Howard played a season-high 18 minutes in his place, contributing two points, three rebounds, one steal and no turnovers, notable given the amount of ballhandling he was asked to do. Guards Kyle Sturdivant (five points in eight minutes) and Parham (nine points in 13 minutes, including a key layup in traffic with 39 seconds left) also helped hold off Miami.
“They stepped up when we needed them most,” Alvarado said. “Without them, we wouldn’t be in this situation.”
Tech’s offensive meltdown at the end was another aspect of the game to forget, or perhaps ensure it does not repeat itself. As Miami pressed to get back in the game, the Jackets buckled. Normally the embodiment of cool, guard Michael Devoe turned the ball over on three consecutive possessions inside of the final 2:15. It recalled Tech’s late-game failings in its March 2 overtime win over Duke in which turnovers and missed shots nearly cost the Jackets in regulation and overtime.
“If any GT fans are listening, I’m sorry about the passing,” Usher said. “We need to get that right. Because even with the Duke game and a couple other games, we can’t just seem to pass the ball and get it past half when they do a little press at the end.”
Tech did survive that scare, as well as another moment of terror, when Miami’s Wong drove on Alvarado in the first half and the two hit knee-to-knee, causing Alvarado to fall to the floor in pain. He had to be helped off the floor and was taken under the stands to be examined. He missed the final 3:38 of the first half.
With Tech down 33-29 at the half and lacking spark, the idea of the Jackets playing the second half without their heart and soul (also the ACC defensive player of the year) was particularly unappealing. But Alvarado returned to the floor as the Jackets warmed up before the second half, testing out his knee by shuffling side to side before playing all of the remaining 20 minutes, occasionally wincing and limping.
“It can’t hurt (Friday). It can’t hurt Saturday. It can hurt Sunday. It can’t hurt (Thursday), though,” Alvarado said. “I told myself that. It just can’t hurt right now.”
The Jackets can count themselves perhaps a little fortunate to need Alvarado to gut out a sore knee for at least one more game.
“We got our first win here, and we’ve just got to focus on Virginia on Friday because it’s going to be tough,” Alvarado said.