Georgia Tech suffers ugly ending to good season in NIT final

The bar is suddenly high for crushing season-ending losses in Atlanta sports. So take comfort, Georgia Tech: What happened Thursday night on a basketball court won’t result in nearly the emotional scar tissue that followed a certain football game a couple of months ago.

Let’s just call what happened in the NIT championship game this: a reality check. A really painful reality check.

“This game could have happened a lot of times this season,” coach Josh Pastner said Thursday night. “We just happened to really overachieve a lot.”

In the season’s final game, Georgia Tech couldn’t even ‘chieve. It was like a two-ton weight with “market correction” stamped on it fell from the sky and through the Madison Square Garden roof and crushed them at center court.

After winning four straight as a sixth-seed in college basketball’s second-tier tournament, Georgia Tech was thumped by a bigger, stronger and deeper TCU team 88-56 in the NIT championship game. So ended the Jackets’ season — about five games later than expected.

Senior Quinton Stephens said, “We didn’t want our season to end this way. But I don’t think it takes away from what we did this year.”

So let’s start with that. Georgia Tech finished 21-16. The Jackets won far more games overall and in the ACC (8-10) than most expected this season. It was an impressive start to the Pastner era, and the coach was quick to remind us afterward that his expected timeline was to get his team into the NIT by season three or four and into the NCAA tournament by season five. If that’s accurate, he’s ahead of the curve.

Pastner has a lot of building to do. He said it before the game and he reaffirmed that after it. They looked undersized and weaker against TCU at both ends of the court. Pastner needs to recruit some size on the front line — preferably quickly, in the form of a transfer or two, if the Jackets have any realistic hopes of getting into the NCAA tourney next season. And, yes, with Ben Lammers, Josh Okogie and Tadric Jackson among the returnees, that is an attainable goal.

Pastner said, “I’m not going to allow what happened tonight to steal the joy of what happened this season.” It was a nice sentiment. But what happened Thursday night was ugly. TCU dominated in the paint (54-22), on the boards (44-30) and in second-chance points (21-7).

Lammers, who is 6-10 but relatively slight, looked worn down and had his worst game of the season. He got into early foul trouble, hit only one of 10 shots and was dominated by TCU’s Vlad Brodziansky (18 points, six rebounds) at the defensive end. The ripple effect: There was little room for Okogie to penetrate the lane and he also struggled (4-for-12).

“We have to develop our guys physically and we have to get tougher,” Pastner said.

TCU led 10-0, 16-1, 20-3. There was one point when the Horned Frogs’ Alex Robinson just physically ripped the ball away from Jackson and finished his one-man fastbreak at the other end.

When the mojo ends, it really ends.

The Jackets suddenly looked like the team that struggled to beat Shorter and North Carolina A&T and lost to Duke by 53 points. This was the season’s second-worst loss, by deficit and opponent’s point total. Tech was soft inside defensively. Shooters struggled to find openings against the TCU’s perimeter defense. The Jackets looked beat up at both ends of the court and missed nine of their first 10 shots and 19 of their first 28.

They never led. They never threatened to lead. One had to struggled to remembering when they trailed by single-digits. (Trivia: The last time was 42-34 early in the second half. They were outscored 46-22 the rest of the game.)

“They just came at us and we weren’t able to answer that,” Lammers said. “Offensively or defensively, we couldn’t do a lot on them inside.”

This ending shouldn’t make anybody forget the season — that Georgia Tech stunned four opponents with a top-25 RPI ranking (North Carolina, Florida State, VCU, Notre Dame), that there was a vibe around the program and a buzz in McCamish Pavilion this season like there hadn’t been in years. But this game just showed how far Tech has to go.

Pastner hopes to build Tech into an ACC contender. Jamie Dixon hopes to do the same for TCU in the Big 12. Both appear on that right track. Dixon was hired away from Pittsburgh with the hopes of building a basketball program at a “football school.” Everything Tech did, TCU did this season. The Horned Frogs stunned then No. 1 Kansas in the conference tournament and finished 24-15, more wins than the school has had since finishing 27-6 when it played in the WAC under Billy Tubbs in 1997-98.

TCU was a fourth-seed in the NIT. So it was an achievement for both programs just to get this far. One just looked far better than the other at the end.

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