In strange year, Georgia Tech, Florida State make for fitting ACC finalists

January 30, 2021 Atlanta - Georgia Tech's guard Jose Alvarado (10) drives the ball upcourt in the second of a NCAA college basketball game at Georgia Tech's McCamish Pavilion in Atlanta on Saturday, January 30, 2021. Georgia Tech won 76-65 over the Florida State. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

January 30, 2021 Atlanta - Georgia Tech's guard Jose Alvarado (10) drives the ball upcourt in the second of a NCAA college basketball game at Georgia Tech's McCamish Pavilion in Atlanta on Saturday, January 30, 2021. Georgia Tech won 76-65 over the Florida State. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

GREENSBORO, N.C. – They split two games in the regular season. Saturday night, Georgia Tech and Florida State will meet for a third time with the ACC championship on the line.

It is a matchup of a team that has forced its way into the highest echelon of the ACC under the direction of coach Leonard Hamilton and another that has similar aspirations, objectives that the Yellow Jackets have met in their expectation-shattering season.

Hamilton has noticed the work that Tech and coach Josh Pastner have done after being picked to finish ninth in the preseason.

“I thought that the job they did was just phenomenal,” Hamilton said Friday night after the second-seeded Seminoles outlasted sixth-seeded North Carolina 69-66. “I thought Josh, being picked wherever they were, and for him to come out and lose the first two games, and then be where he is now, a top-four seed in the ACC, just says a lot about the quality of his leadership and his coaching staff, keeping those kids together.”

In an ACC Tournament unlike any other, Florida State and Tech make fitting finalists. For one thing, both of them have reached the final by winning only one game. Both recipients of double byes after finishing in the top four in the regular-season standings, the Jackets survived 13th-seeded Miami on Thursday in a quarterfinal, and then advanced to the final Friday when top-seeded Virginia withdrew prior to the teams’ semifinal matchup due to a positive COVID-19 test within its team.

Similarly, the Seminoles were to play 10th-seeded Duke in the quarters on Thursday, but the Blue Devils pulled out after their own positive test, clearing FSU’s path to its semifinal against North Carolina, which Friday was playing its third game in as many nights. Down as many as 13 in the first half, the Tar Heels led 64-62 with 3:15 left in the game, at which point the Seminoles squeezed hard on defense and finished the game with a 7-2 run to win 69-66.

Another oddity: It will be the first time since 1990 that neither finalist represents one of the conference’s four North Carolina schools. Remarkably, in the 29 tournaments since, Duke, North Carolina, N.C. State or Wake Forest have reached the championship game, often two of the teams together. Duke and UNC had their own 23-year streak snapped in which one of the two or both made the final. (Tech played in both of the finals that preceded the two streaks, winning the 1990 title over Virginia and losing in 1996 to Wake Forest.)

Hamilton and Pastner seem to have a genuine appreciation for each other and their teams. Hamilton has often praised the difficulty of the 1-3-1 zone that the Jackets often employ. When speaking of Florida State, Pastner rarely fails to take the opportunity to push Hamilton for induction into the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame.

Speaking on the Packer and Durham show on the ACC Network Friday morning, Pastner said he happened to see Hamilton Thursday at the Grandover Resort where both of their teams are staying this week in Greensboro. The five-year contract extension that Hamilton recently received was part of their conversation.

“I asked him why didn’t they give him a lifetime extension,” Pastner said.

Hamilton said Friday that the Jackets have improved over the course of the season and executed their game plans well.

“And then when you watch them play, they are giving every ounce of ability, effort that they have in their bodies,” Hamilton said.

He then singled out guard Jose Alvarado and forward Moses Wright, named the league’s defensive player of the year and player of the year, respectively. He affectionately called Alvarado “the little man” and noted that no one would have anticipated Wright becoming a player capable of winning player of the year.

“It says a lot about their ability to develop kids, and they have a system that take advantage of who they are,” Hamilton said. “They play seven, or maybe eight players, most of the year, and I’m sure they’ve had the same aches and pains that most of us have had. But for them. But for them to gut it out and be playing for the championship game says a lot about the coaching staff and the fantastic job that they’ve done, and a lot about the character of the players on the team.”

Another similarity between the two in this season of pauses and game postponements: Tech and FSU may have handled coming out of their own breaks as well as any team in the league. Where teams often encountered difficulty returning from lengthy pauses in competition – perhaps most notably Clemson getting blasted 85-50 by Virginia after an 11-day pause and North Carolina drumming Louisville 99-54 after the Cardinals had been sidelined for 19 days – Tech and FSU took care of business in their returns.

The Jackets hadn’t played in 17 days when they faced Clemson at McCamish Pavilion on Jan. 20 and then proceeded to shoot the lights out (16-for-27 from 3-point range) and force 20 turnovers (11 by steal) in an 83-65 win. The Seminoles did it twice – hammering N.C. State 105-73 by shooting 70.7% from the field emerging from a 15-day pause and then defeating Wake Forest in overtime after a 14-day hiatus.

In a season that has required resilience and fortitude, perhaps this is the matchup that was meant to be.