The almost comeback
The Yellow Jackets gave a valiant effort and nearly pulled off what would have been a stunning comeback. Tech was down 11 points with a little more than five minutes remaining and rallied to the point that it had three pretty good 3-point attempts in the final minute to tie. The Jackets put together a 15-5 run that drew them to within one at 54-53 with 12 seconds remaining before two Louisville free throws returned the lead to three with 10 seconds left.
Forward Charles Mitchell was monstrous in the rally, coming down with six offensive rebounds that kept alive possessions that led to six points, all of them scored by him. He scored another three after jumping an inbounds pass and driving for a layup and a foul for a three-point play.
Ultimately, it fell short, so it’s somewhat moot, but it’s not what we’ve become accustomed to in the past two seasons, when the Jackets have repeatedly lost games in the final minutes and it appeared that that they lacked something – fortitude, poise, strategy, a finisher – to win games. Tech nearly won – or at least sent the game to overtime – by doing the exact opposite, making big shots, sinking free throws, playing more aggressively and coming up with a huge defensive play (Mitchell) to put a considerable scare into Louisville.
One of Tech’s most crushing defeats last season was to the same Cardinals, a 52-51 loss in which the Jackets led by 13 with nine minutes to play before losing. This would have been a considerably more daring theft.
“They just kept fighting with us,” Louisville center Chinanu Onuaku said. “They wouldn’t go away.”
It followed Tech’s win over Notre Dame, in which the Jackets were down 60-54 with just under three minutes to play before winning, and the defeat of Clemson, when they trailed by 13 with 16 minutes to play but won.
“We’ve been down so many times, I just knew to stick with it,” Mitchell said. “Just to stick with it. Like the Notre Dame game, we stuck with it. The Clemson game, we stuck with it. All in my mind was, we’re that team that’s always down, but we stick with it. We just didn’t come out at the end.”
It perhaps bears mention, too, that there isn't a lot to complain about in losing by three points to the No. 11 team in the country on its home court on senior night when there's hints that the team's legendary head coach maybe retiring.
Regrettable first half
Tech missed a huge chance in the first half to do more damage. The Jackets quieted the senior night crowd by taking a 7-0 lead, but were absolutely throttled on the defensive glass. Louisville shot 31.4 percent in the first half and Tech shot 44.4 percent, but the Cardinals led 28-27 because they had eight more field-goal attempts and took seven free throws to none for the Jackets (the first time Tech didn’t attempt a free throw In a half this season). Louisville had 12 offensive rebounds to 13 defensive rebounds for the Jackets. It’s just one half, but that’s a pretty weak effort. Tech’s defensive rebounding rate in ACC games coming into the game was 72 percent.
“I felt we were stagnant, watching the ball hit the rim,” Mitchell said.
Tech further turned the ball over 10 times in 32 possessions, an abhorrent and atypical 31.3 percent. When the Jackets could get the ball in the post and when the post players weren’t losing it, Tech was functioning pretty well – Nick Jacobs, Ben Lammers and Mitchell (James White didn’t attempt a shot) – were a combined 5-for-8 in the first half.
Guard Adam Smith kept Tech afloat with 2-for-4 shooting from 3-point range in the half.
It didn’t happen in a vacuum. Louisville played exceptional perimeter defense out of its 2-3 zone – guards Quentin Snider and Trey Lewis harassed Tech’s guards and made it difficult to do much else besides pass the ball around the perimeter, and I think forced the Jackets to rush.
To Tech’s credit, its defense, along with Louisville’s awful shooting – the Cardinals were 0-for-9 from 3-point range in the first half, most of them open looks – kept the Jackets in the game. They managed having to hang in for the final 5:09 without Georges-Hunt after he took his second foul, which followed Mitchell going to the bench with his second foul at 8:32. When Georges-Hunt went to the bench, the Jackets trailed by three, so they actually made up ground, as forward Quinton Stephens hit a buzzer-beating jumper.
Tech did far better in the second half. The Cardinals had only two offensive rebounds and free throws were even at seven, even with Tech fouling late.
But, as has been written often, in a game decided by three points, it wouldn’t have taken much to make a difference. Going into the half up five instead of down one might have been the difference.
Tech may have to win the ACC tournament to make the NCAA field of 68, or at least reach the championship final. The Jackets are now 17-13, and 20-14 just isn’t a record that you see getting an at-large bid too often. I suppose it’s conceivable. That would suppose a win over Pittsburgh, a likely tournament team, and wins over Virginia, Notre Dame and VCU and a pocketful of “good losses.” It doesn’t help that two other conquests, Florida State and Clemson have likely fallen out of contention.
The Jackets still need to do work to make the NIT. A win over Pittsburgh and in the ACC tournament gets Tech to 19 wins and makes the Jackets a possibility, although a 20th win would help.
Right now, Tech and FSU are tied for the No. 11 seed, which plays Tuesday in the opening round, but Tech would win the tiebreaker by virtue of its head-to-head win. Florida State finishes with a home game against Syracuse, tipping at the same time as Tech’s game against Pittsburgh.
As of Wednesday morning, Pitt would be the No. 7 seed and the opponent of the No. 10 seed. The Panthers are 9-7 and play at Virginia Tech Wednesday night.
Clemson may have the inside track on the No. 7 seed. The Tigers need to win at Boston College Saturday to get to 10-8 and then hope for Pitt to split with Tech and Virginia Tech to also finish at 10-8, whereby it would have a tiebreaker. The Tigers also have a tiebreaker over Syracuse, which is 9-8 and plays FSU Saturday.
Stat to note
Georges-Hunt was 3-for-14 form the field and 1-for-5 from 3-point range to finish for nine points and turned the ball over four times. As noted above, Louisville did a commendable job with its perimeter pressure. That might have been the difference in the game.
A look at how Tech and Louisville compared in four critical statistical categories: effective field-goal percentage, offensive rebounding percentage, turnover percentage and free throws per field goal percentage.
Louisville handily won the bottom two categories, a testament to how aggressively and fiercely the Cardinals played. Without the four foul shots that Louisville took in the final 30 seconds (making all four), the percentage would still have been 17.2. The turnover disparity was likewise critical. Louisville turned Tech’s 17 turnovers (tying the season high set against Boston College) into 15 points. Tech, meanwhile, converted Louisville’s 11 turnovers into just five points.