Jackets can’t hold 13-point lead in loss to Clemson

Rodney Howard scored 11 for the Jackets. (Photo courtesy of Clemson University)

Credit: Clemson University

Credit: Clemson University

Rodney Howard scored 11 for the Jackets. (Photo courtesy of Clemson University)

CLEMSON, S.C. — Defeat found Georgia Tech once again.

Ahead by as many as 13 points in the second half, the Yellow Jackets stumbled down the stretch and fell to Clemson 68-65 Wednesday night at Littlejohn Coliseum. The Jackets have lost seven of their past eight and remain in last place in the ACC, their collection of near-miss losses growing steadily.

“It’s one of the most frustrating things just because of how good we did last year and how consistently we’ve been doing really good for the past three years that I’ve been here,” Tech guard Michael Devoe said. “For this year, to go out like this with this being my senior year, it’s been tough, it’s been frustrating.”

Tech (11-19 overall, 4-15 ACC) will close the regular season Saturday at home against Boston College before going to Brooklyn, N.Y., for the ACC Tournament, where the Jackets will defend their conference championship as either the No. 14 or 15 seed.

“It feels like it’s been the story of our reason,” guard Kyle Sturdivant said. “A couple bad breaks, a couple bad bounces. It’s been like this repetitious thing. It’s hard, but it’s part of it. Just got to grow from it.”

Wednesday, the Jackets were cruising, riding the hot hand of Sturdivant (12 points) and the continued improving play of center Rodney Howard (11 points, four rebounds, three assists) to take a lead of 13 points at three different times in the second half and 11 points with 8 ½ minutes to play.

Clemson (15-15, 7-12) seemed off its game, turning the ball over repeatedly with passes way off the mark. Perhaps fortune would favor coach Josh Pastner’s team.

Instead, after the Jackets went ahead 55-44 with 9:35 to play on a layup by freshman guard Deebo Coleman, they didn’t score again until 4:50 remained, a stretch of six consecutive empty possessions. It was yet another prolonged scoring drought of the sort that has habitually cost Tech, either by serving to erase a Jackets lead or by taking Tech out of a close game.

Clemson guard Al-Amir Dawes’ 3-pointer gave Clemson a 56-55 lead with 5:12 to go and finished a 12-0 run, rousing a Littlejohn crowd that was a nonfactor for much of the game.

Devoe, who led the Jackets with 15 points and seven rebounds, was well aware of the potential for Clemson to rally, having experienced it enough this season.

“That’s what I kept emphasizing to the team,” he said. “I was like, this game, it’s not over with. There’s a lot of other guys on the other team that can shoot the ball really well. If they can just get a couple 3′s, it changes the complexion of the game. It came down to it like that. They hit tough 3′s at the end, and we had costly turnovers that we shouldn’t have given up, and it just happened like that.”

After Dawes’ 3-pointer, Devoe answered with a 3-pointer and then fed forward Jordan Usher by squeezing in a downcourt pass for a layup for a 60-56 lead. Perhaps Tech would be able to recover and win. But on the next possession, the Jackets failed to challenge a 3-point try by guard Chase Hunter, which, naturally, found its target to cut Tech’s lead back to one.

Over the final 5:12, the lead changed hands five times with three ties, but it was hard to escape the feeling that Tech was going to somehow come up short again. This time, among the culprits were a charging call on Usher with 1:56 to play and the score tied, an in-and-out layup try by Devoe with 45 seconds remaining with Tech down one, a 1-for-2 effort from the line by Howard after he rebounded Devoe’s miss and was fouled and, lastly, a misplayed final possession in the last 14.6 seconds.

Kyle Sturdivant calls a play for the Jackets. (Photo courtesy of Clemson University)

Credit: Clemson University

icon to expand image

Credit: Clemson University

After guard Naz Bohannon backed down Devoe for a basket and and-one free throw for a 68-65 lead, Sturdivant brought the ball upcourt intending to run a play to get Devoe free for a game-tying 3-pointer. Sturdivant passed to Coleman outside the 3-point arc, and Coleman was supposed to deliver the ball to Devoe.

But Devoe was tightly guarded by Dawes and then slipped. Rather than try to look to score himself – he came into the game making 42.4% of his 3-point tries – Coleman returned the ball to Sturdivant, whose 3-pointer from perhaps 26 feet was way off the mark as time expired.

“Deebo should have shot it,” Pastner said. “He had the open 3; he should have shot it. I don’t think he realized, when the guy fell, how open he was.”

After making 21 of their first 41 shots, the Jackets made but four of their final 25 attempts.

“We just have not got it done in close games,” Pastner said. “Guys fight, they compete, they play hard. There’s no issue with our effort. We defend, we get after it, we force teams into turnovers. The reoccurring theme is we go on those scoring droughts, which we did again (Wednesday), and we just haven’t been able to win close games.”

Sturdivant played 37 minutes, nearly matching his career high (38), as Tech was again without point guard Deivon Smith, out with a concussion. It was a costly absence, but certainly no greater than what Clemson was dealing with, as leading scorer P.J. Hall was out for the third game in a row with a foot injury. The Tigers have won all three.

“I think we’re better than what our record indicates, and we all feel that,” Sturdivant said. “It’s been hard to really describe that, but we’ve just got to keep trying to plug away.”