Georgia Tech turnovers lead to pummeling by No. 13 Virginia

To have a chance against No. 13 Virginia, Georgia Tech needed to play at its peak. Yellow Jackets coach Josh Pastner had aimed to have his team primed for its first post-Christmas game by grinding players through a week of intense practice sessions to address weaknesses and tweak schemes.

The Jackets, however, were unusually sloppy with the ball, did not defend with consistency and were devoured by the visiting Cavaliers on Saturday at McCamish Pavilion. Connecting from 3-point range and taking advantage of a string of turnovers, Virginia used a 25-0 run that bridged the first and second halves to score a 74-56 win over the Jackets. Tech (7-6, 0-3 ACC) lost for the 10th consecutive time to Virginia and coach Tony Bennett, who tied the legendary Terry Holland for most career wins (326, against 119 losses) at the helm of the Cavaliers program.

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Tech turned the ball over a season-high 23 times, many of the giveaways not because of Virginia’s pressure but more from failures to handle the ball cleanly while dribbling or passing. At least with regard to possession of the ball, Tech looked little like the team that came into the game averaging 10.1 turnovers per game, 11th in Division I. Virginia (10-2, 2-1) converted the 23 turnovers into 30 points.

“The turnovers were, just no other word to describe it than atrocious,” Pastner said. “That’s the best way to describe it, unfortunately.”

It was not an ideal presentation for the Tech basketball royalty present Saturday, Mark Price, Dennis Scott and coach Bobby Cremins, or for the remainder of the announced crowd of 5,371, many there to support the visiting team. It perhaps was the low point of the season thus far for Tech, which was picked to finish last in the ACC after finishing 14th last season. The Jackets have started ACC play 0-3 for the second season in a row, this season losing each game by 13 points or more. Tech effectively has been out of the game by halftime in each of the three losses.

The schedule won’t relent. Tech’s next game, at home Wednesday, is against No. 14 Miami, which is on a nine-game win streak. Pastner might hope the Jackets can leave their troubles behind in 2022.

“Everybody here knows we’ve been in some situations during our time here where it looks like the sky’s falling, and we found a way to get out of it,” he said. “We’ll have to do the same here in our situation.”

On top of the turnovers, the Jackets weren’t especially effective even when they held onto the ball, although Virginia’s unrelenting defense factored. While Tech’s offense emphasizes ball movement – Pastner’s abiding maxim for the offense is that the open man is the go-to man and vice versa – the Jackets continued to struggle at passing effectively to create open shots for teammates.

“I think, defensively, Virginia’s a good team; they load up in the gaps,” said guard Kyle Sturdivant, who had eight assists but also five turnovers, both career highs as a Jacket. “We take full accountability for it. I think we should have had a little bit more ball movement. It starts with me. I feel like we’ll be better next game.”

Tech finished 20-for-45 from the field (44.4%), but had made 12 of 31 field-goal attempts (38.7%) through the nine-minute mark of the second half, at which point Virginia led 58-34.

The Jackets actually were competitive with the Cavaliers through most of the first half before a 9-0 run leading into halftime capsized their bid for an upset.

Virginia 74, Georgia Tech 56

Tech trailed 27-25 after two free throws by forward Jalon Moore with 2:58 remaining. Virginia guard Kihei Clark failed to handle a pass from forward Ben Vander Plas, giving the Jackets a chance to tie or take the lead, but guard Miles Kelly’s 3-point try was just off the mark. Moore gave the Jackets another chance with a steal on the perimeter, but his outlet pass to Deivon Smith to start a fast break was off the mark and recovered by Clark, who passed to Armann Franklin for a 3-pointer. Virginia now led 30-25, a swing of potentially five points.

“That was a huge swing,” Pastner said.

Deebo Coleman tried to answer, but his 3-point try from the corner bounced twice off the inside of the rim before hopping out. The Jackets fought for a stop on the next Virginia possession for another chance to cut the score to one possession, but lost the ball on a travel by Smith with 41.6 seconds left.

The bottom fell out after that. Virginia’s ball movement got the Tech defense out of alignment, leaving Clark open for a 3 from the corner and a 33-25 lead. The Jackets turned the ball over again, and Clark found Isaac McKneely for a 3-pointer as the final seconds ticked off the clock for a 36-25 halftime lead. Clark, a fifth-year senior, vexed the Jackets again with a team-high 15 points with eight assists.

Said Sturdivant, “One or two shots here and there, and then it just felt like the momentum shifted.”

Tech surrendered any remaining chance to win in the first 5-1/2 minutes of the second half. Giving the ball away repeatedly to create open-court baskets for Virginia, Tech gave up a 16-0 run to start the half and fell behind 52-25, adding to the 9-0 surge allowed at the end of the first half.

“We didn’t get a shot up at times,” Pastner said. “We were just throwing the ball away.”

Ever positive, Pastner said he took some encouragement from aspects of the loss. The Jackets were able to generate production out of their transition offense (15 fast-break points), an area where they’ve struggled. The interior defense was better as Pastner at times played post players Rodney Howard and Ja’von Franklin together, although the 3-point defense (Virginia shot 10-for-22) may have suffered as a result. Kelly scored a game-high 20 points, his eighth consecutive game in double figures.

“Can’t get in the fetal position,” Pastner said. “We’re going to have to dig in and continue to get better and fight and get over that hump.”