Where did Georgia Tech’s stunning 3-point performance come from?

On Wednesday night, Georgia Tech emerged from its 17-day layoff to slay No. 20 Clemson with possibly the greatest 3-point shooting performance in school history. The day after, the architect’s explanation of the stunning marksmanship was disappointingly bereft of any revelations of clever tactics, unless you happen to be fascinated by shot selection.

“I wish I could tell you I did some incredible, genius work and came up with this incredible drill that allowed us to shoot (so well), but that’s not the case,” coach Josh Pastner told the AJC on Thursday, the day after the Yellow Jackets dropped 16 of 27 3-point tries on Clemson in their 83-65 win at McCamish Pavilion. “That’s not the case. Guys have gotten better, and that’s a part of what we’ve tried to do as a program.”

Since the 3-point shot became part of the NCAA rulebook in 1986, only once have the Jackets made more in a game than they did against the Tigers, who entered the game in the top 10 nationally in defensive efficiency (KenPom). That was a 17-for-31 game against Clemson in January 2001.

And while the Jackets’ 59.3% 3-point shooting didn’t rate among the top 15 most accurate games in school history – No. 15 was a 61.1% game – Tech attempted 12 or fewer in 10 of them and no more than 21 in the other five. Further, it should be pointed out, none of the 15 were played with the 3-point arc at the current international distance (22 feet, 1¾ inches).

And, certainly, none were played coming off a break of 2½ weeks because of COVID-19 protocol, which made Wednesday’s performance all the more intriguing.

“I was happy,” Pastner said. “I was excited. When the shots go in, it makes the coach and everything else look better.”

A favorite maxim of Pastner’s is that basketball is a “make-or-miss game.” It is a phrase he invoked often in his first three seasons, when the Jackets hovered near the bottom of Division I in 3-point shooting percentage. He called upon it again Thursday, resisting the temptation to find great meaning in the Jackets’ accuracy against Clemson, particularly as it related to being Tech’s first game after a prolonged pause.

“We have improved with our shooting for this year, and in ACC play last year,” Pastner said. “But a big key of that is getting great shots. Shot selection is just as important as the shooting.”

Shot selection is paramount for Pastner. In video sessions, Pastner likes to show players clips from games and freeze the action just as a 3-point shot is released. He then asks them to assess the quality of the shot, regardless of the outcome, having them rate it either great, good, average or bad. Was the player open, were his feet set, was he shooting in rhythm?

“Whether the shot goes in or not, to me it’s more about shot selection and ball movement,” he said.

All of that overlooks that players have developed as shooters. Whether shots go in isn’t entirely random. The numbers bear out the progress that development and improvement in shot selection have had.

After Wednesday’s game, the Jackets were making 36.8% of their shots, which ranks among the top 20 percent of Division I teams and fourth in the ACC. Only two seasons ago, the Jackets shot 30.7% for the season, 331st in Division I and last among power-conference teams. The improvement fits with the overall development of the team, now dominated by upperclassmen such as guards Jose Alvarado and Michael Devoe.

“They have good offensive players,” Clemson coach Brad Brownell said. “I would hope that they wouldn’t shoot that well, but I’m sure a good bit of it is our poor defense.”

But, the perspective of prioritizing shot selection helps Tech to stomach poor shooting games, such as when the Jackets shot 5-for-20 on 3′s against Florida State in a Dec. 15 loss despite taking many good shots, and likewise helps explain games such as Wednesday’s.

In a game that’s make or miss, sometimes the makes outweigh the misses. Devoe was 6-for-7, tying a career-high for makes. (He originally was credited with a perfect 6-for-6 night, a school record for most makes without a miss, but he was found to have missed a 3-pointer late in the game that was first scored as a 2-point attempt.)

“When you see your first one go in and they keep going in, it’s like throwing rocks into an ocean,” Devoe said. “You really can’t miss.”

Guard/forward Jordan Usher, who had made 30.8% of his 3-pointers this season before Wednesday and had never made more than two in any game in his career, was 5-for-8.

“A lot of my 3′s that I made were uncontested open looks,” Usher said. “It’s bad on me if I missed that. So props to my guys for finding me.

It continues the Jackets’ strong finish from last season. They shot 26.9% in their first 12 games, as they dealt with the absence of Alvarado (ankle injury) and an offense that didn’t work. In the last 19 games, with Alvarado healthy and a changed-up scheme in place, the Jackets made 34.2% of their 3-point tries.

Can the Jackets transport their hot shooting into Saturday’s game at No. 13 Virginia? Probably not, in no small part because few teams defend as well as the Cavaliers.

“Every game is unique,” Pastner said.

But, in a make-or-miss game, you never can tell.

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