Georgia Tech upsets Florida State for ACC championship
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Georgia Tech players hold the trophy as they celebrate their 80-75 win over Florida State in the championship game of the Atlantic Coast Conference Tournament in Greensboro, N.C., Saturday, March 13, 2021. (AP Photo/Gerry Broome)
GREENSBORO, N.C. – As he put his first recruiting class together, Georgia Tech coach Josh Pastner identified Jose Alvarado as the point guard he wanted to build his team around in no small part because winning was more important to him, Pastner thought, than breathing.
The journey of the coach and his trusted guard reached its peak Saturday night at the Greensboro Coliseum, as the unrelenting Alvarado’s defensive prowess drove the Yellow Jackets to the team’s first ACC championship since 1993. With its 80-75 win over second-seeded and 15th-ranked Florida State, the fourth-seeded Yellow Jackets won the team’s fourth ACC title by fleecing the Seminoles of the ball seemingly at will and getting just enough offense to cross the finish line first.
“They’re a really good team,” Alvarado said of the Seminoles. “We knew that coming in. We knew that it was going to be a fight. But we also knew that we could beat them.”
It was a surreal moment, one difficult to believe from a team that has not made the NCAA Tournament since 2010 and had spent most of those years in that stretch languishing in the bottom third of the ACC. And even in the context of this season, it challenged belief. After being projected to finish ninth in the ACC (which was probably low, given that the Jackets had climbed to fifth place last season and brought back most of their roster), Tech stumbled quickly, losing its first two games at home to Georgia State and Mercer.
But Tech has closed with a flourish, now having won eight consecutive games, and, by virtue of the conference championship, has earned an automatic bid into the NCAA Tournament.
“If someone would have told me (after the losses to Georgia State and Mercer) ‘You’re going to be ACC champs in a few months,’ I never would have believed it,” Alvarado said. “I would have looked at them like they were crazy.”
In a riveting game in which neither led by more than nine points, Alvarado was the catalyst for Tech. With the ACC’s defensive player of the year leading the charge, Tech forced a season-high 25 turnovers out of Florida State, giving the Jackets a much-needed surplus of possessions given the difficulty they were having scoring on the Seminoles. Tech piled up 15 steals, a record for the championship game. FSU’s turnover total was one shy of the record for the title game.
“For us, it was just coming out with tons of energy,” guard Michael Devoe said. “This is the championship game. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. So for us, we came out with everything.”
Alvarado set the tone at the start. After forward Jordan Usher batted the ball out of FSU’s RayQuan Evans’ hands on the first possession, Alvarado deflected a pass out of bounds on the next possession and then pilfered the ball from Seminoles guard M.J. Walker as he dribbled into the lane off the ensuing inbounds pass. Tech forced another turnover on the third possession when forwards Moses Wright and Khalid Moore trapped Walker in a corner and knocked the ball out of bounds off Walker, prompting Wright to unleash a primal scream when the referees awarded the Jackets possession.
On the fourth possession, Alvarado knocked the ball loose from Evans again. When it went out of bounds, FSU coach Leonard Hamilton subbed out Evans for point guard and ACC sixth man of the year Scottie Barnes. When Barnes caught the inbounds pass, Alvarado’s body-to-body pressure forced him to travel, a fourth turnover in as many possessions right out of the gate.
“He played an outstanding game,” Devoe said. “He led us, he did what he was supposed to do and he’s an amazing player.”
With Tech having trouble generating open looks with its dribble-drive game against FSU’s height and excellent help defense, the Jackets shot 43.5% while the Seminoles shot 56.0%, including 8-for-15 from 3-point range. The difference was Tech’s volume of attempts. Tech turned the ball over only seven times, one shy of its season low against ACC competition. The Jackets managed 62 field-goal tries to FSU’s 50.
Despite a field-goal percentage 12.5 percentage points lower than FSU’s, Tech made 27 baskets to FSU’s 28 and then cashed in heavily at the free-throw line as the Seminoles had to foul, making 21 of 28 from the line. It was not unlike Tech’s path to victory in its Jan. 30 win over FSU at McCamish, when Tech turned the ball over 14 times to the Seminoles’ 21 in a 76-65 Jackets win.
“You’ve got to give them credit,” Hamilton said. “They have a knack for forcing turnovers unlike anyone that we’ve seen, especially the ability to steal and knock the ball out of your hands and then not foul. That’s a skill that they have developed to the highest, and you have to give them credit for being who they are a lot better than we were able to be who we are.”
Alvarado finished with five steals, along with 13 points, five rebounds and three assists. Fittingly, the game-clinching play was his.
With Tech ahead 78-73, FSU inbounded with nine seconds left to Gray. Alvarado hounded him up the right sideline and when Gray raised up for a 3-pointer from the right wing with about six seconds left, Alvarado knocked the ball out of Gray’s hands with his left hand and lobbed a pass ahead to Devoe for a layup and an 80-73 lead with .6 seconds left that sent Alvarado racing down the court, pumping his fist.
“A lot of emotions – joy, happiness, everything,” Devoe said when asked what he felt as he put home the final layup. “I mean, this goes down in history for us.”
Alvarado said he knew the play was coming, as the Seminoles had run it previously.
“I saw the ball was in reaching distance, and once I hit it, I knew I got it,” Alvarado said “My teammates always know I’m pretty good at that, and they know they’re going to be right there. So I hit it, and I knew that was like, the dagger and it was just something that I was just so happy about.”
Pastner, who joins Bobby Cremins as the only Tech coaches to win an ACC title, was beyond thrilled for Alvarado.
“Look, he was part of our first recruiting class, and he set the tone,” Pastner said. “And I knew what I was getting when I signed him. I knew what my vision was with him. And he’s lived up and even more than I could even imagine.”
Devoe led the Jackets with 20 points on 8-for-12 shooting, his ninth consecutive game in double figures. The junior earned tournament MVP honors, joining three Tech greats who won the Everett Case Award after the Jackets’ three previous ACC Tournament triumphs, Mark Price, Brian Oliver and James Forrest. It was a sweet reward after having been named honorable mention All-ACC the past two years, recognition he saw as a slight.
“It’s huge for me,” he said. “It’s truly a blessing. I feel like I’ve been disrespected for the last two years on the ACC selections. But for me, it’s just something I use as motivation, and to play with a little chip on my shoulder. So, this is huge for me. All the work has definitely paid off, and just continue to keep doing that and keeping my head down and staying focused. This is huge for me.”
To a season that has already surpassed the expectations of nearly all, Tech (17-8) piled on some hardware that has rarely come its way. FSU (16-6) fell short in its bid for a repeat championship after being awarded the 2020 championship having finished first in the regular season as the tournament was canceled due to COVID-19.
Wright and Alvarado, the lone remaining members of Pastner’s first signing class, exulted with teammates as confetti shot out of canons and balloons fell from the Greensboro Coliseum rafters. Alvarado fell to the ground as time expired. The two struggled and grew through back-to-back seasons in the ACC as freshmen and sophomores before achieving the team’s first winning record in ACC play since 2004 last year, joined by transfers Bubba Parham and Usher. Both made key contributions Saturday, as did every other Jacket who took the floor against the Seminoles: Besides Alvarado, Usher, Devoe, Wright and Usher, that’s Khalid Moore, Rodney Howard and Kyle Sturdivant.
Whatever happens in the NCAA tournament – the team will learn its place in the bracket Sunday – their place in Tech basketball history is secure. The path to the title was highly unordinary, as the Jackets beat only 13th-seeded Miami in the quarterfinals before advancing to the final when top-seeded Virginia withdrew because of a positive COVID test. Still, on Saturday night, the Jackets took down a team with Final Four potential to claim the trophy, and did so for the second time this season, no less.
“I don’t think people understand how hard it is to beat Florida State twice in one year,” Pastner said. “But our guys have just scrapped, fought, kicked, clawed, whatever they had to do to find a way to get wins this year, and I’m just so darn proud of these young men.”
After receiving the championship trophy, players, coaches and staff took turns cutting down the nets on both baskets. They hugged one another, took photos together and waved to the handful of Tech fans in the coliseum. Alvarado was the last to leave the court, posing for a photo in front of the scorer’s table amid a collection of green, silver and blue balloons. The table’s video screen read “2021 CHAMPIONS.” One of the nets hung around his neck. He wore a commemorative cap with two strands of the net tied to the adjustable band.
Earlier in the celebration, Pastner had pulled him aside and reminded him how despondent he had been eight games ago, when he missed two free throws in the final seconds at Clemson that enabled the Tigers to win on a banked-in 3-pointer. After returning to campus, Alvarado shot free throws as penance while Pastner tried to lift his spirits, telling him that he still wanted the ball in Alvarado’s hands with the game on the line. Saturday, he was 5-for-6 from the line in the final minute as the Seminoles tried to get back in the game.
“What a feeling, man,” Alvarado said. “Those two free throws that I missed at Clemson put me in a deep, deep, deep, deep place. And look at that – it all paid off at the end.”
Ken Sugiura is a sports columnist at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Formerly the Georgia Tech beat reporter, Sugiura started at the AJC in 1998 and has covered a variety of beats, mostly within sports.