GREENSBORO, N.C. — The last time Georgia Tech played Pittsburgh, the Yellow Jackets took the Panthers into the final two minutes of the game with the outcome still in doubt before succumbing in a matchup of teams at the top and bottom of the ACC standings. The 76-68 loss Feb. 21 in Pittsburgh secured a season sweep for the Panthers.
After the game, Pitt coach Jeff Capel said he thought that the Jackets were playing as well as any team in the conference after emerging from a nine-game losing streak that included an 11-point loss to Pitt at McCamish Pavilion.
“I just have so much respect for Josh (Pastner) and his staff that it’s been a tough year, but he’s continued to get those guys to fight,” Capel said. “They play a style that’s difficult to prepare for because the zones are just different. They have length. Certainly, since they’ve gone smaller, they’ve played a little bit faster. They’ve shot the ball way better. So I knew they would be a different team than the team we played earlier in the season.”
The third meeting arrives Wednesday, as Tech and Pitt play in the second round of the ACC Tournament in a meeting of the 13th and fifth seeds.
“I’m excited,” guard Lance Terry said Tuesday after the Jackets knocked out No. 12 seed Florida State in the first round. “We’re 0-2 against them. Third time’s the charm right here.”
Regardless of who they’ve faced, the Jackets have clearly played much better over the past nine games, including Tuesday’s win over the Seminoles. But an upset of Pitt would be Tech’s biggest win since winning the ACC championship two years ago.
The Jackets did upset No. 14 Miami, which shared the ACC regular-season title with Virginia, on Jan. 4. But that was at McCamish Pavilion and was the fourth league game of the season. To beat a 21-win team to reach the ACC quarterfinals – territory the Jackets have only reached twice since the 2010 tournament – would be the most confirming evidence of a team that has won seven of its past nine and is spilling over with confidence.
“Let’s go ahead and beat them and move up,” Terry said. “We have three more games to go after that.”
In the Feb. 21 game at the Petersen Events Center, the game was close nearly the entire way. The largest lead either team held was nine points – in the final minute of the game as the Jackets put Pitt on the free-throw line to get the ball back. Both teams shot 47% from the field. The difference was at the free-throw line, where the Panthers made 19 of 20 and Tech was 7-of-10. (In the first game, Pitt took 20 free throws to Tech’s three.)
“That was a good game,” forward Ja’von Franklin said. “I think we had that game at their place and we just turned the ball over late, and credit to Pitt. They made a lot of great shots, they hit a lot of big shots, so it’s going to be a great game between us. We owe them one, so we’re just going to go out there and do what we do.”
Tech’s fatigue level could be pivotal. As has become the norm, Pastner’s five starters all played 37 minutes or more Tuesday. Terry played 40 minutes for the sixth time this season – the Jackets are 6-0 in those games – as did Franklin. After Tuesday’s game, Terry said he was “very tired.”
Pitt’s last game was Saturday, a 78-76 loss to Miami. Tech trainer Richard Stewart had recovery treatment ready, including air compression sleeves, electric stimulation and an inflatable ice tub.
“Anything for the team,” said Franklin, who set a school record with 19 rebounds against Florida State, the most by a Jackets player in an ACC Tournament game. “Anything I need to do to get us a win, I’ll do it.”
Finally playing well and winning, the Jackets just want to keep going.
Franklin said he was spurred at halftime Tuesday by graduate manager Rob Mbenoun, who reminded him that it would be his last game at Tech if the Jackets were to lose.
“That just kind of hit me right there,” Franklin said. “Don’t give up on any possession, go for every loose ball. Anything that’ll help us get a win, that’s what I try to do.”
The advantage that the Jackets have in having already played is that they’re now accustomed to Greensboro Coliseum and have gotten over nerves that afflicted them in the first half of Tuesday’s game, when players had trouble keeping control of the ball, took unusual defensive risks and missed shots they’ve consistently made over the last third of the season.
In Capel’s first four seasons at Pitt, the Panthers played in the first round. Ranked No. 57 in NET, Pitt appears to be in the NCAA Tournament field for now but certainly could use a win or two in Greensboro to assure its spot. A 5/13 upset would not be out of place. Since the league expanded to 15 teams, the No. 12 or 13 seed has a 3-6 record against the No. 5 seed, including wins in each of the past two years.
“I think we’ve just got to play our game,” guard Miles Kelly said. “Just play Georgia Tech basketball, and as long as we do that, I think we’ll come out with the win.”
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