Georgia Tech survives a scare and is semifinal-bound

Georgia Tech guard Jordan Usher (4) celebrates a basket with teammate forward Rodney Howard (24) during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game against Miami in the quarterfinal round of the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament in Greensboro, N.C., Thursday, March 11, 2021. (AP Photo/Gerry Broome)
Caption
Georgia Tech guard Jordan Usher (4) celebrates a basket with teammate forward Rodney Howard (24) during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game against Miami in the quarterfinal round of the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament in Greensboro, N.C., Thursday, March 11, 2021. (AP Photo/Gerry Broome)

Credit: Gerry Broome

Credit: Gerry Broome

Bradley’s Rule: A team coming off a regular season worth celebrating is a team that’s vulnerable in its first conference tournament game. Georgia Tech fit the profile. Picked to finish ninth in the ACC, the Yellow Jackets came in fourth, beating Florida State for the first since 2017 and Duke for the first time in 11 years.

Since winning at Wake Forest on March 5, Tech had hunkered down in a Greensboro resort, which has both a spa and a golf course. Because it was the No. 4 seed, it wouldn’t open the ACC Tournament until the event’s third day, and the unprecedented-for-Tech double bye figured to dull the senses even more. And if that weren’t enough, the Jackets’ opponent was Miami, which they beat by 27 points in Coral Gables last month and which, by winning twice in two nights, became the first No. 13 seed to reach the ACC quarterfinals.

In sum, this was an on-paper mismatch that had “trap game” scrawled all over it. Sure enough, Tech trailed by four points at halftime, by seven with 18 minutes remaining. Moses Wright, the newly minted ACC player of the year, would manage almost as many points (seven) as fouls (five); he fouled out inside the final three minutes. Jose Alvarado, the league’s defensive player of the year, missed the final 3½ minutes of the first half when he banged knees with Miami’s Isaiah Wong.

Had Tech been matched against an opponent a bit better and a bit less fatigued, the No. 4 seed would have been eliminated – and the NCAA basketball committee, gathered in Indianapolis, might have had reason to re-examine the Jackets’ qualifications vis-à-vis the Big Dance. But Tech won, if only just. Final score: 70-66. They’ll play top-seeded Virginia in Friday’s semifinal. The long-sought NCAA bid remains safe.

In sum, whew.

“We’re in the semifinals of the ACC Tournament,” coach Josh Pastner said, and something that hasn’t happened since 2010. For the record, this was Tech’s first victory in the conference tournament under Pastner, who after a Round 1 elimination in 2018 stayed in Charlotte to watch how the big boys – Duke, Carolina, Florida State, Virginia – do it.

“We just have to get off Tuesdays,” he said then, meaning the day reserved for the league’s lesser lights. These Jackets won enough to miss both Tuesday and Wednesday, and on this sunny Thursday they prevailed on a day where so much went wrong.

Said forward Jordan Usher, who scored 13 of his 15 points in the second half: “We played a pretty poor game. Moses had his worst game in a long while, but I told him, ‘Better now than in the Elite Eight.

The climactic moment came with 25 seconds remaining. Tech led 68-66. Jordan Usher was inbounding from the sideline in backcourt. His pass went to nobody and was headed out of bounds for a turnover that would have given Miami a chance to win. But Alvarado, scurrying on two bad legs, ran down the ball and saved it to Bubba Parham, who flipped it back to Alvarado, who threw long to an unencumbered Usher, who dunked.

Said Usher of Alvarado’s iron will: “I figured Jose would get it – unless I heard something break, God forbid. If somebody would screw his head off, he’d try to screw it right back on.”

Said Pastner, inventing a new standard of excellence: “Jose Alvarado is the greatest guard in the history of Georgia Tech on 50-50 balls.”

Thus did the Jackets get away with one. They won’t see anybody as bad as Miami, which finished 10-17, from here on, but they might also have needed this lesson in the nature of tournaments. It doesn’t matter how good you were against Duke in McCamish Pavilion if you stink out the joint on a neutral court come March.

Said Alvarado: “We were sitting down (idle) too long. We’re a team that needs to be in rhythm.”

ExplorePhotos from the Jackets' win

Tech is still going, which can’t be said for the sport’s most famous program. Because of a positive test, Duke had to withdraw from the ACC Tournament, which means it won’t be going to the NCAA Tournament, either. If nothing else, the Blue Devils’ fate lent even more resonance to Pastner’s incessant imprecations to his players about the necessary of masking and social distancing and general COVID-19 avoidance.

“I repeat myself a lot,” he said (and he does). “Imagine how often I’m repeating myself on this – like 50 times that. … But we’re going to Indianapolis for the NCAA Tournament. Do you know how precious that is? We know we’re going. We just have to get there.”

They’ve negotiated the first hurdle. Now they get Virginia, which Tech hasn’t beaten under Pastner. But a lot of things that hadn’t happened under this coach are happening now. This is a program, finally, with the wind at its back.

About the Author

ajc.com