Vexing Florida State (again), Georgia Tech finding belief

Georgia Tech guard Jordan Usher (4) reacts after making a three-pointer during the ACC college basketball game between the Florida State Seminoles and the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets on January 26th, 2022 at Hank McCamish Pavilion in Atlanta, GA. (Photo by Rich von Biberstein/Icon Sportswire) (Icon Sportswire via AP Images)

Credit: AP

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Georgia Tech guard Jordan Usher (4) reacts after making a three-pointer during the ACC college basketball game between the Florida State Seminoles and the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets on January 26th, 2022 at Hank McCamish Pavilion in Atlanta, GA. (Photo by Rich von Biberstein/Icon Sportswire) (Icon Sportswire via AP Images)

Credit: AP

Superman had Kryptonite. Florida State may have Georgia Tech. Before a raucous crowd Wednesday night at McCamish Pavilion, the Yellow Jackets defeated the Seminoles for the third consecutive time, this time by a 75-61 score in a meeting of the ACC’s first-place team (FSU) and its last-place entry (Tech).

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Going back to last season, it was coach Josh Pastner’s third consecutive win over counterpart Leonard Hamilton, a man whom Pastner reveres and whose candidacy for the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame he rarely misses an opportunity to endorse.

“To beat them is like beating Duke and Carolina,” Pastner told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution on Thursday. “You can make a case that (in recent seasons) they’ve been even better in the league.”

Once again, Tech’s 1-3-1 defense gave the Seminoles difficulty. Florida State tied season highs for turnovers (17) and opponent steals (10) in the loss.

“Zone schemes seem to give us an awful lot of trouble,” Hamilton told Florida State media after the game. “It’s kind of hard to turn the ball over against zone defenses, but we figured out a way to do that (Wednesday). I think that was our Achilles heel in the first half.”

It followed the pattern of Tech’s two wins over the Seminoles last season, a 76-65 victory at McCamish and the 80-75 win in the ACC tournament championship game in Greensboro, N.C. In the two games, the Seminoles committed a combined 46 turnovers, with 29 of them coming from Jackets steals.

While Tech led the ACC last season in steals at 9.1 per game, the Jackets came into Wednesday’s game forcing an average of 13.5 turnovers per game with 7.8 steals per game.

“Once we got into the half-court, I just didn’t think we drove the ball very well,” Hamilton said. “We were extremely tentative, unlike the way we’ve been at times this year.”

Since the start of last season, Florida State is 18-8 against ACC opponents. The Jackets are responsible for three of those losses.

“You’ve got to give them credit,” Hamilton said. “They outplayed us (Wednesday). This is a loss that won’t look very good on our résumé.”

To Pastner, the seeds of Wednesday’s upset were planted in practice following the team’s 80-64 home loss to Wake Forest on Jan. 19, when the Demon Deacons’ transition game surged through the Jackets. In practice after that and in the team’s win Sunday over Division II Clayton State, “we just have focused on transition defense because you’ve got to get the basket covered, you’ve got to get the ball stopped and then you’ve got to load to the ball,” Pastner said.

Tech’s improved play in retreating after missed shots or turnovers made Florida State play its half-court offense and tangle with the Tech zone, which Wednesday night was particularly infused with energy and focus.

“When our zone is working like that, man, come on, that gets me excited,” forward Jordan Usher said. “That’s when it doesn’t have to be perfect. We’re flying around with energy, putting our hands up here, getting a tip here. You don’t have to have perfect scheme and strategy as long as your energized coming down getting rebounds, contesting stuff. That’s Georgia Tech defense.”

Usher had a career-high five steals, as did forward Khalid Moore (one shy of his career high). Usher had an eye-popping stat line – 19 points, eight rebounds, five assists, five steals and no turnovers in 38 minutes of play. He became only the second player in Division I this season to have a line of at least 15 points, five rebounds, five steals, five assists and no turnovers in a game, according to sports-reference.com.

“He was just such a floor general,” Pastner said. “His energy. That’s called an energy giver, a positive energy giver.”

Tech plays at home Saturday against Miami, which is now alone in first place in the ACC. After losing nine of their past 11 before the Clayton State game, Usher said he felt that the Florida State game could be a turning point. The Jackets are 9-10 overall and 2-6 in the ACC. There are 12 regular-season games remaining, eight against teams with losing records in ACC play.

“This is just great for our team,” Usher said. “It builds chemistry. Just being able to pull out a win like this vs. No. 1 when we’ve got Miami coming next is just huge. Honestly, I’m real excited right now. I just can’t wait to get back to practice and keep working. I’m excited. We can do something.”

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