NEW YORK – There was a lumbering start and then a feverish rally that opened the door to the possibility of a most unlikely win.
But, in the end, Georgia Tech’s stay at the ACC Tournament ended in defeat, bringing an end to a season that has known a lot of it. The No. 14 seed Yellow Jackets fell to No. 11 seed Louisville in a first-round matchup Tuesday night at the Barclays Center, concluding Tech’s reign as ACC champions.
“It’s been a tough season,” coach Josh Pastner said at the end of his sixth year as Tech head coach.
In front of perhaps less than 2,000 fans in the final game of the first day of the tournament, the Jackets were on the verge of being run out of the arena, falling behind by 27 points midway through the second half. They responded with some of their best play of the season, closing the gap to five points with about three minutes to play. That was as close as they could get.
“Georgia Tech does what they’ve done throughout the year; they fought back, they got back in the game,” Louisville interim coach Mike Pegues said. “I thought that their energy superseded ours on the defensive end. Their ball pressure really bothered us.”
One fewer Tech turnover or one more defensive stop might have tilted the game in the Jackets’ favor, as Pastner has said of many games this season. But Louisville’s early margin, produced in part by the Jackets various shortcomings, shrank that probability. The Cardinals, a team that had lost 14 of its final 16 regular-season games, will move on to play No. 6 seed Virginia on Wednesday night.
The game began in unsettling fashion for Tech. Pastner held seniors Michael Devoe, Khalid Moore and Jordan Usher out of the starting lineup for what a team spokesman called an “internal team matter.” After the game, Pastner said that the violation of team rules was “nothing more than minor,” but that team rules dictated them being held out. All three came off the bench by the 13:15 mark of the first half.
“It’s less than minor, but it’s our standards,” Pastner said.
Usher had started every game this season, and Moore had started all but one. It was the first game that Devoe had not started for a reason other than sickness since his freshman year.
While their replacements in the starting lineup – freshmen Deebo Coleman, Miles Kelly and Jalon Moore – actually helped Tech to an early 9-3 lead, led by guard Kyle Sturdivant’s scoring spurt, it didn’t last long.
The Jackets were flattened by a 24-6 run to give the Cardinals a lead that they never relinquished. The lead crested at 27 points (64-37 with 12:07 to play in the second half) before a wild Tech rally closed the gap to 73-68 with 2:57 to play. But Louisville (13-18) recovered to oust Tech (12-20) and end its season.
In the first half, Louisville used the size of post players Malik Williams and Sydney Curry to control the offensive glass, and the Cardinals’ ball movement with the pass and off the dribble opened the door for a barrage of 3-pointers. Louisville ended the first half up 45-28, shooting 10-for-18 from inside the 3-point arc and 6-for-12 from outside it.
It was a level of play that Louisville, playing for Pegues after Chris Mack was fired in December, had rarely reached this season. Their 27-point lead was the largest the Cardinals had enjoyed since the middle of December.
A day after earning All-ACC status for the first time in his career, Devoe was in a self-described fog in the first half. Louisville guard Jarrod West was dogged in staying in front of him, and he was not able to get comfortable. With the score 27-17 in Louisville’s favor, Devoe got out ahead of the Cardinals’ defense after a defensive stop and appeared to have a freebie layup when Usher passed him the ball. But he was unable to catch it cleanly and put up an awkward attempt off the glass that missed. He seemed to be in disbelief, holding his head in his hands, a nightmare unfolding before him.
“I just felt like I was in my head a little bit,” Devoe said. “Sometimes it just happens like that.”
As they do, the Jackets refused to buckle and staged a staggering rally after falling behind by 27. Ratcheting up the defensive energy and going hard at the defensive glass, Tech collected stops as the offense came alive. Encouraged by teammates to shake out of his funk, Devoe showed his scoring touch, scoring eight consecutive points in a 19-0 run that closed the lead to 67-59 with 6:47 to play.
What might have been the largest rally in ACC Tournament history – the record book only notes largest halftime deficit overcome (19 points) – seemed a possibility as the pocket of Tech fans roared their support. Louisville, a team that has not handled such circumstances well this season, looked rattled.
“Seeing that we were down 27, we wanted to fight,” Devoe said. “We knew that this was going to be our last game if we didn’t fight back and try to compete.”
Tech continued to press into the Cardinals, but a pair of long-distance 3-pointers by West, the latter with 1:59 to play for a 79-70 lead, finally secured the outcome for Louisville. Usher had a hand up to challenge the first of the two but watched it go through the net, three of West’s game-high 20 points.
“I was just like, man,” Usher said. “I feel like I got stabbed in the chest.”
The game was an amalgam of so many threads that ran through the season. The shortage in production from the post players (Rodney Howard scored four points in 19 minutes). The crushing scoring droughts (the Jackets scored four points in a first-half stretch of almost eight minutes). Pastner’s difficulty in finding the right combination of players (he tried nine players, more than his usual, on Tuesday). The promise of the freshmen (Kelly was a standout again, scoring 19 points on 7-for-9 shooting). The unflagging effort of the team even when seemingly out of the game. And, ultimately, defeat.
Tech’s 12-20 record is the worst in Pastner’s six-year tenure, immediately following the team’s first ACC title since 1993 and first NCAA Tournament appearance since 2010.
“There’s been some highs and lows,” Pastner said. “Obviously, we would have liked to have had a better win-loss record.”
Louisville 84, Georgia Tech 74
Tuesday’s defeat came with stinging finality for seniors Devoe, Usher and Moore.
“I don’t know if you play Candy Crush, but when you run out of lives and it gives you a time limit before you can play again, that’s how I feel,” said Usher of the popular online video game. “Like, on my phone, I can just pay and get some more hearts and play again. I can give you $2.99 and play again, but you can’t do that in real life.”
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