Looking back, a most unusual win for Georgia Tech

Credit: ACC

Yellow Jackets rally from a 15-point halftime deficit for an 82-80 win over the Fighting Irish in Atlanta.

Credit: ACC

From an NCAA-tournament résumé perspective, Georgia Tech’s wins over North Carolina, Clemson and Florida State this season were more important than its win over Notre Dame Saturday night at McCamish Pavilion. But the manner of the Yellow Jackets’ 82-80 triumph was unlike any other in coach Josh Pastner’s tenure.

In a game when their defense was largely in a losing battle with the Fighting Irish, the Jackets responded by finding a gear on offense that they’ve rarely reached in Pastner’s five seasons. They also did it by overcoming the largest deficit ever surmounted in a win since his hire in 2016.

What the Jackets’ play on Saturday says about Tech’s prospects for the remainder of the season is uncertain, but it may have been the game that best illustrated particular strengths — turnover creation, offensive efficiency, tenacity — and the potential of Pastner’s team as it heads into the most treacherous section of the schedule — four games in seven days, starting with No. 14 Virginia on Wednesday at McCamish Pavilion.

“Let’s try to separate ourselves and not keep going back and forth with wins and losses,” guard Jose Alvarado said. “No, let’s get on a run and show that this is not just a team that, ‘Oh, maybe a tournament (team), maybe not a tournament team.’ Let’s show them who we really are and go out there and play hard.”

First, Tech’s defense. Notre Dame pulled up to McCamish with its offense smoking. In winning four of its previous five games, the Irish had shot 51.9% from the field, 49% from 3-point range, averaged 79 points and had a 2.1 assist/turnover ratio in the wins — all impeccable numbers.

The Irish didn’t relent Saturday, hitting 59.3% of its shots — 3-point shooting cooled, relatively, at 38.9% — and finishing with 20 assists and 11 turnovers.

“Not picking up guys, not getting back all the way (on defense) and (them) finding open men, they were getting a lot of open looks,” guard Michael Devoe said.

The Jackets had particular difficulty defending Notre Dame’s slip screens, repeatedly taking advantage of Tech’s failures to stay with the screener as he cut to the basket for layups and dunks. Notre Dame forward Nate Laszewski piled up 27 points on 11-for-13 shooting, seven of which were layups or dunks, most of them wide-open attempts.

“They were very successful in the first half with the pick-and-rolls,” Alvarado said. “And going into the second half, I knew we’re not probably going to be perfect, but I told them we just have to play with energy and get the loose balls.”

While Pastner’s tenure has been built on strong defensive play that has often overcome middling offensive play, Notre Dame’s shooting percentage tied for the highest achieved against the Jackets with Pastner as coach. It was easily among the weakest defensive performances by Tech since Pastner’s arrival, particularly in the first half. The Irish went into halftime up 50-35, the most points they had ever scored in the first half of an ACC game.

“If you don’t play exactly defensively, they make you pay,” Pastner said of the Irish. “They’re that good.”

Georgia Tech guard Jose Alvarado (10) grabs a rebound against Notre Dame forward Nate Laszewski (14) in the second half Saturday, Feb. 6, 2021, at McCamish Pavilion in Atlanta. Tech won 82-80. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)
Georgia Tech guard Jose Alvarado (10) grabs a rebound against Notre Dame forward Nate Laszewski (14) in the second half Saturday, Feb. 6, 2021, at McCamish Pavilion in Atlanta. Tech won 82-80. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

For most teams, but certainly for Tech, such defensive play has been a sure path to defeat. Prior to this season, the Jackets were 0-15 with Pastner when opponents shot 50% or better, according to sports-reference.com. In only three of those games was Tech able to stay within single digits. In games when the opponents shot 45% or better and limited turnovers to 15 or fewer, Pastner teams at Tech were 2-30 before this season.

In fact, Tech was a jaw-dropping 0-51 with Pastner when its opponent had a higher field-goal percentage. (The Jackets are 71-18 when enjoying the same advantage.)

Until Saturday, that is.

Against Notre Dame, Tech survived by relying on its strengths. Tech’s defense does not challenge shots as well as it has previously. But what the Jackets do well is create turnovers with their quickness; they are tied for the ACC lead with 9.1 per game. Often going to a full-court press, Tech came up with nine steals — about three more than Notre Dame had permitted on average — including eight in the second half. Guard Jose Alvarado had six by himself. Tech’s steals generated 12 points.

“I think their pressure bothered us,” Notre Dame coach Mike Brey said. “Kind of wore on us a little bit. We really haven’t played against a team that’s pressed us, but I thought it got us on our heels a little bit.”

Four players — Alvarado, Devoe, Jordan Usher and Moses Wright — all scored in double figures, a sign of Tech’s offensive progression. With Alvarado at the controls, Jackets held onto the ball, turning the ball over nine times. Tech took advantage of open 3-point shots and transition opportunities. Devoe and Usher in particular hit some difficult shots. And, as likely happened to Notre Dame, the Jackets probably got lucky a few times.

In all, Tech shot 58.3%, its highest rate of the season and about 12 percentage points higher than its season average. The combination of efficient offensive play and low turnover rate — two traits of the Tech offense this year — enabled Tech to find its way back into the game after falling behind 14-2 in the first six minutes.

“I’m proud of my brothers,” Alvarado said. “We showed that we could get punched and keep our hands up and fight back. It was just a great win overall for us.”

The win marked just the second time that Tech in Pastner’s time had given up 80 points in regulation and won, against 17 defeats, according to sports-reference.com. Until this season, Tech has not had the firepower to overcome that kind of hot shooting.

The comeback itself spoke to a quality of his team that Pastner refers to often — its unwillingness to give in. The rally from 17 down in the first half surpassed successful comebacks from 15 points down against N.C. State in the 2019-20 season opener and in a 2017 home game against Boston College. At Florida State in December, the Jackets fell behind by 16 points seven minutes into the second half before they twice cut the lead to one point. FSU took back control and won, but it showed the senior-dominated Jackets’ mettle and unflappability, even in a game when they weren’t shooting well.

“Our guys, every game we’ve ever been down have, knock on wood, we’ve always fought back,” Pastner said. “Our guys have had a resilience about them in all my time here. They’ve competed and fought and scrapped.”

Tech should not expect to win again if it falls behind by 17 points or allows an opponent to shoot nearly 60% from the field, particularly against in the Jackets’ game Wednesday night against the Cavaliers. But, at least they know they’ve done it.

“We did a great job (Saturday),” Devoe said. “We’ve just got to keep it going.”

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