After two stunning losses, Georgia Tech wrecks Kentucky

Credit: ACC

The Yellow Jackets flummoxed No. 20 Kentucky in a 79-62 win in the Holiday Hoopsgiving at State Farm Arena in Atlanta.

Credit: ACC

Even by Josh Pastner’s flexible grand design, it’s past time for Georgia Tech to do something. It’s Year 5 for this coach, and the Yellow Jackets still haven’t graced the NCAA tournament. Even Pastner concedes this is the team he has awaited — four starters returning after a season that saw them finish fifth in the 15-team ACC — but the early returns were shockingly awful.

On the night before Thanksgiving, Tech lost at home to Georgia State in four overtimes. On the night after Thanksgiving, the Jackets were beaten, again at home, by Mercer. They were 0-2 against two in-state teams, neither of which is, say, Kentucky. And who was next on Tech’s schedule?

Um, Kentucky.

Funny thing, though. The Kentucky that arrived — via a seven-hour bus convoy from Lexington, this being a pandemic and who wants to fly? — at State Farm Arena is, as of this moment, the worst team the Jackets have faced. The again-all-new Wildcats could be a handful come March, but they’re hopeless now. They were coming off losses to Richmond in Rupp Arena and to Kansas in Indianapolis; through three games they’d averaged 17.3 turnovers per game.

They surpassed that dismal benchmark Sunday. Kentucky had 12 turnovers in the first half, three more in the first 2 ½ minutes of the second, 21 at game’s end. By then the Jackets, who took a while to get going, were clearly the better side. Tech led by 10 in the first half, by seven at the break, by 20 before it was done. Final score: Tech 79, Kentucky 62. The Jackets scored 33 points off turnovers.

Said Tech guard Bubba Parham, who scored 17 points: “We defended for the first time. As a collective, we played better today … We wanted to make a statement today.”

Tech’s defense, their staple under Pastner, went missing in the its two losses. Georgia State scored 123 points in 60 minutes, Mercer 83 in 40. Pastner said that COVID-constricted early practices had prevented his team from working on its 1-3-1 zone and its many permutations, but the Jackets went to work in the nine days between Mercer and Kentucky. (They practiced twice most days.) Even a rusty matchup zone was apt to addle Kentucky, which — even by John Calipari’s start-over-every-year standards, this is noteworthy — didn’t use a single player who worked in the Wildcats’ victory over Tech in Rupp last December.

Pastner spent a year at Memphis as Calipari’s assistant and followed him as the Tigers’ head coach. At the Flats, Pastner has sought to become the anti-Cal. He has long wanted a team that would get old and stay old. He has it now. Tech starts four seniors and a junior. Man for man, they’re not as gifted as Kentucky, though no Wildcat is yet half the college player Moses Wright, who scored 21 points Sunday, has become. But they can take care of the ball — only six turnovers Sunday — and they have a cohesion about them that UK’s collection of McDonald’s All-Americans and transfers will never have.

Said Pastner: “(This game is) who we are. A week ago, we obviously didn’t play very well. To bounce back and respond against a top 20 team is a credit to our young men.”

Georgia Tech forward Moses Wright (5) blocks the shot by Kentucky forward Olivier Sarr (30) in the first half of the Pit Boss Grills Holiday Hoopsgiving Sunday, Dec. 6, 2020, at State Farm Arena in Atlanta. Georgia Tech won 79-62. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)
Georgia Tech forward Moses Wright (5) blocks the shot by Kentucky forward Olivier Sarr (30) in the first half of the Pit Boss Grills Holiday Hoopsgiving Sunday, Dec. 6, 2020, at State Farm Arena in Atlanta. Georgia Tech won 79-62. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Five Jackets scored in double figures. (Though not Michael Devoe, who inexplicably went pointless.) Only two Wildcats did. Tech looked like a team; Kentucky, by way of contrast, was a ragged aggregation. It’s difficult to square Tech’s powerful and poised performance with the losses to Georgia State and Mercer, but hey … it’s 2020, when nothing makes a lick of sense.

An example: A win over Kentucky anytime anywhere should be a signature moment, but the Wildcats are such a mess — at 1-3, this is their worst start under Calipari, who been in place since 2009 — that it’s hard to know how to label this. Certainly a 17-point win after embarrassing losses to Georgia brethren will do wonders for the Jackets’ sense of self, but this really wasn’t an upset. Many among us believed these Jackets had, and still have, a chance to do nice things. If a December victory over a reeling Kentucky is this season’s high point, something will have gone wrong.

Pastner again: “You get punched in the face twice over Thanksgiving weekend, and it tests your character. Are you going fight and come off the ropes, or are you going to lay on the couch in a fetal position?”

On a December Sunday against one of the sport’s brand names, his Jackets gave us an answer. They’re still 1-2, but it’s a 1-2 with a nationally aired victory over Kentucky. Maybe not the standard-issue Kentucky, but a Kentucky all the same.

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