As Georgia Tech just learned, you play Georgia State at your peril

Tipoff came at 9:04 p.m. on the night before Thanksgiving. The game ended on Thanksgiving. It wasn’t aired on the ACC Network. (For the record, the Sun Belt has no network.) You had to hunt on the cable grid to find it. It was worth finding.

Final score, after four overtimes: Georgia State 123, Georgia Tech 120.

We could talk about this one until all the Turkey Day leftovers have been consumed, but let’s start with the headline of headlines. Georgia State, which has taken down opponents hailing from the SEC and Big 12 and Big Ten, had never beaten a representative of the high-falutin’ ACC. It has now.

Lefty Driesell twice beat Georgia and once, in the NCAA tournament, upset Wisconsin. Ron Hunter famously toppled Baylor in the rolling-chair game and, two years ago this week, thumped Georgia in the Caymans by 24 points after leading by 35. Now Rob Lanier, Hunter’s successor, has his signature victory.

Lanier’s first season as Panthers coach ended with a thud, GSU being ousted at home in the Sun Belt tournament quarterfinals by the other GSU – Georgia Southern. That came March 11, the night college basketball began to shut down. On Wednesday, college basketball restarted itself. By 12:30 a.m. Thursday, we had our first significant result.

In a socially distanced McCamish Pavilion, Georgia State and Georgia Tech met for the first time, at least officially, since 2008. (The teams played an exhibition, billed as “The A-town Showdown for Hurricane Relief,” on Oct. 28, 2017. GSU won 65-58. Didn’t count, but GSU still listed it in its pregame notes. You would, too.) Georgia State won for the first time, officially, since 1976.

Georgia State was picked by the Sun Belt media to win the league’s East Division, the conference having split in the attempt to reduce travel this pandemic season. Georgia State has been the Sun Belt’s flagship for a while now, making the NCAA tournament three times over Hunter’s final five seasons. (He left for Tulane in March 2019.) Georgia State is the sort of mid-major that has trouble scheduling big-name opponents. The big names, see, are afraid of being embarrassed.

Georgia Tech hasn’t made the NCAA tournament since 2010. Tech finished fifth in the ACC last year but, with a postseason ban pending, opted at the last moment to serve its sentence in 2020. Given that there was no college basketball after 1 p.m. March 12, that choice was most sagacious. The Yellow Jackets are free to accept an invitation come March, and consensus holds that, for the first time under Josh Pastner, they’ll be NCAA-worthy.

So which, on Thanksgiving morning, is the bigger deal – that Georgia State is 1-0 after beating an ACC team for the first time, or that the team on which Tech fans have been waiting, not always patiently, is 0-1 after losing at home to an opponent based three miles from the Flats? Probably the first part, but it’s a close call.

Tech trailed by seven points at halftime, having been outscored 17-0 (!) over a 6-1/2 minute span. The best thing about Tech under Pastner has been its defense, but the Panthers met limited resistance. They made 48.4 percent of their shots. They scored 77 points in regulation. They scored 46 in the 20 minutes of overtime. Four GSU players broke 20 points, including Eliel Nsoseme, a 6-foot-9 transfer from Cincinnati. He fouled out after working 33 minutes; he had 21 points, seven rebounds. All seven rebounds were offensive.

Tech saw three players – Moses Wright, Jose Alvarado and Michael Devoe – score 84 points. That wasn’t surprising, given that those are the best three Jackets, and that all of them worked at least 53 minutes in a 60-minute game. Only Corey Allen worked as many as 50 minutes for Georgia State. Said Wright, who finished with 31 points and 20 rebounds and who fouled out in the fourth overtime, via Zoom: “My ankles hurt; my shoulders hurt. I want to get in the cold tub.”

The biggest lead over the four overtimes – neither school had ever played so long before – was four points. That came with 1:21 left in the third OT after Alvarado made two free throws stemming from a technical foul on the GSU bench. (Lanier was furious over a non-call under the basket.) The Jackets inbounded with a chance to break it open; they didn’t even get a shot. Devoe was stripped by Kane Williams, who scored on a runout. With 12 seconds left, Justin Roberts’ banked 3-pointer pulled the Panthers within one. After Alvarado missed a free throw at 0:06, Collin Moore tied it with two foul shots at 0:01. The game kept going.

Devoe was called for traveling with 1:28 left in OT No. 4 and the score tied. Another Williams layup put GSU ahead to stay. Tech would lose on a night when it took 59 free throws, 21 more than its opponent. The Jackets were outscored by 23 points from the field. The headline on Mike Holmes’ postgame Georgia State notes, which were emailed at 2:34 a.m.: “Downtown Takes Down Midtown.”

Pastner wore a face shield during the game. He was wearing it for his postgame media session. He seemed more confused than disconsolate. Georgia State had never scored 123 points in its history; Tech had never yielded 123 points in its history. He said: “It was almost like the basketball gods were saying, ‘OK, Georgia State’s winning this game.’”

Divine intervention might have helped Georgia State beat Baylor after trailing by 12 inside the final three minutes that famous day in Jacksonville. This, however, seemed a case of one good team outplaying, if only just, another. Tech made 36 baskets – the Panthers had 46 – over 60 minutes. It managed just 12 assists on those 36 hoops. It had 22 turnovers.

Wright is among the ACC’s best players. Alvarado and Devoe are billed as the ACC’s finest backcourt. The Jackets went 11-9 in conference play last season, marking the first time the program finished above .500 versus the ACC since 2004, Paul Hewitt’s Final Four season. Had they participated in the 2020 ACC tournament, they’d have been the No. 5 seed. They should be better this season. They might still be. This opener, however, wasn’t what anyone had in mind.

Anyone except the Panthers, who’ve gotten really good at this. A team from a Power Five conference views a game against Georgia State as something to be endured; GSU regards such moments as the opportunity to make another in a series of statements. To borrow from a certain Southern-based conference, such a game just means more to the underdog.

We were reminded why Georgia Tech hadn’t deigned to schedule the crosstown school in a real game for more than a decade. For the longest time, Georgia State was among the worst programs in basketball. That changed with Lefty, and especially with Hunter. If you play the Panthers now, there’s a real chance you’ll lose. News flash: These teams are also scheduled to meet in each of the next two seasons.

Georgia State has been playing basketball too well for too long for its tweaking of a prestige opponent to qualify as a fluke. Since 2013, GSU has won 154 games; no other Georgia-based Division I program has won as many as 130. We’ve said it before. We’re saying it again. In hoops, the Panthers run this state.