The defense was a mess, and Georgia Tech was listing. Notre Dame was pick-and-rolling the Yellow Jackets into the ground. Halfway through Saturday night’s matchup at McCamish Pavilion, a costly loss appeared practically a certainty for Tech.
But, led by guard Jose Alvarado, the Jackets instead penned a memorable and hard-to-believe chapter of the season and coach Josh Pastner’s tenure, rallying from a 15-point halftime deficit in an 82-80 win over the Fighting Irish.
“Our guys, every game we’ve ever been down — knock on wood — we’ve always fought back,” Pastner said. “Our guys have had a resilience about them in all my time here. They’ve competed and fought and scrapped. And we were able to get over the hump.”
Down 50-35, Tech jumped the Irish with a 12-2 run to start the second half, then engaged them in a back-and-forth struggle before finally managing to be in the lead when time finally ran out. It was a most satisfying result for the Jackets (9-6 overall, 5-4 ACC) in their bid for their first NCAA tournament since 2010. Trailing by as many as 17 points in the first half, it was the largest deficit overcome in a Tech win in Pastner’s tenure, and it also broke a four-game winning streak by Notre Dame (7-10, 4-7) in the series. For good measure, the Jackets also won their 11th consecutive home ACC game, extending the school record set with their 10th in a row.
“It felt amazing,” said guard Michael Devoe, who provided a series of clutch baskets in scoring 19 points, sharing the team high with Alvarado. “Since I’ve been here, we haven’t beaten Notre Dame, so it was huge. We had a terrible first half and we put ourselves in a dogfight, so to come in in the second half and going on the run that we did and getting stops, it was amazing. It felt great.”
Tech opened the game looking little like a senior-dominated team feeling urgency to make a run at the tournament. The Jackets scored two points in their first 10 possessions, turning the ball over, missing open shots, taking – and missing – difficult shots and then playing a step slower than Notre Dame on defense. The Irish led 14-2 six minutes in as Tech missed its first seven shots from the field.
“The way they were playing and making shots, it could have spiraled out of us,” Pastner said.
Tech found its footing offensively, but the Irish continued to scorch the nets, finishing the half up 50-35 and shooting 65.5% from the field with two turnovers in 31 possessions. The Irish looked much like a team that had won four of its past five games, each by double digits, and prompted Pastner prior to the game to draw a comparison with the Golden State Warriors’ championship teams.
It was the most points that Tech had given up in a half this season, and the most that Notre Dame had ever scored in a first half in an ACC game.
“I just told my guys, ‘We’re going to have to score, stop, score and keep doing that and chip away,” Alvarado said. “There’s no one basket that’s worth 15 points.”
Tech came out of the half with purpose, turning defensive stops into open-court scoring opportunities. Jumping on a loose ball on the perimeter, guard Bubba Parham led the break and set up Jordan Usher with a behind-the-back bounce pass for a flying dunk to cut the lead to 50-41.
Devoe hit a transition 3-pointer to reduce the lead to 52-47 at the 17:32 mark, compelling Irish coach Mike Brey to call timeout. From there, the fight was engaged.
Sparked by forward Nate Laszewski’s repeated scores off pick-and-rolls, Notre Dame kept fending off the Jackets. But Tech, poking balls away for steals and doing a better job of challenging shots, collected enough stops to chip away, as Alvarado had implored.
The Jackets finally gained their first lead at the 9:24 mark, 65-64, when Alvarado scored on a layup created off one of his six steals in the game. It was the fourth six-steal game for the ACC’s leader in steals, part of a 19-point, six-rebound, five-assist, one-turnover game. Alvarado continues to build on a superlative season that could well make him Tech’s first first-team All-ACC player since Alvin Jones in 2001. He played every minute of the game for the 20th time in his career.
“I’m proud of my brothers,” Alvarado said. “We showed that we could get punched and keep our hands up and fight back. It was just a great win overall for us.”
Another big play by Alvarado was a 3-pointer with the shot clock running down that he banked in off the glass for a 68-67 lead with 8:37 left. Rather than his signature air-guitar strumming, he raised his palms in the air as he retreated on defense.
“It wasn’t a surprise,” Alvarado said. “I just said, ‘Hey, there’s a backboard for a reason.’ Hey, it went in.”
He and Parham both found themselves in severe mismatches trying to defend 6-11 forward Juwan Durham, but both players escaped from those matchups with the ball, having stripped Durham.
“Two pit bulls out there,” said the 6-0 Alvarado of he and his 5-10 teammate. “We might be two guys that are considered undersized, but we’ve got the biggest heart out there. We’re going to go out there and give it all we’ve got.”
All eight Jackets who played made meaningful contributions. Usher scored 16 and played the final 6:47 of the first half with three fouls without taking a fourth. Devoe scored his 19 on just nine shots, hitting a tough shot in the lane for an 80-79 lead with 2:06 to play and then a fadeaway jumper with 1:25 left for an 82-79 lead.
“He made big, tough shots in the paint,” Pastner said.
Forward Moses Wright fought on the glass for eight rebounds and, after making one of his first six shots, made five of his last eight. With 37.7 seconds left, Kyle Sturdivant made a hustle play to retain possession after Notre Dame’s Cormac Ryan’s missed free throw was tapped out of bounds.
With Tech ahead 82-80 at that point, Notre Dame elected to defend without fouling, and Alvarado drove and had his shot blocked, giving the Irish the ball back with about seven seconds left. Guard Prentiss Hubb raced upcourt with the ball, finding Ryan on the wing with about two seconds to go. Devoe closed in with a challenge, Ryan took a dribble to his left and passed, allowing the clock to run out without a shot to tie or win.
“I feel for him,” Brey said. “I think if he had to do it all over again, he would have rose up and taken that one. The last thing I want is him blaming himself, but that’s the kind of guy he (is). He takes everything to heart.”
The Jackets escaped, despite Notre Dame shooting 59.3% from the field, tied for the highest percentage shot against Tech in Pastner’s tenure. Tech did it by nearly matching the Irish (58.3%) and turning the ball over only nine times, two fewer than Notre Dame. It ended a remarkable streak – the Jackets had lost all 51 games under Pastner in which the opponent had a higher field-goal percentage.
Tech has little room to squander any shot at a win, and it can breathe easy and then begin preparing for a visit from No. 14 Virginia on Wednesday.
“Really, really proud of our young men to get the job done,” Pastner said.
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