Thoughts and observations from Georgia Tech's 70-50 win over No. 23 Miami Wednesday night in Coral Gables, Fla. AJC.com story here.
1. It was the kind of play and response that coach Brian Gregory has been looking for since the beginning of January. Through the first seven ACC games, the calamitous loss to Virginia aside, the Yellow Jackets competed, but fell short in crucial junctures.
Double-digit leads melted. Crucial possessions were botched. Defensive intensity and focus weren’t sustained.
Gregory said that one of the things he was most proud of in the win was the defense in the second half. Miami shot 34.5 percent in the first half and 36.0 percent in the second. The two teams were even in rebounding in the first half and Tech held an 18-13 advantage in the second. It drew a particular comparison to Tech’s loss to Boston College, when the Jackets allowed the Eagles to shoot 59.1 percent in the second half.
“(Wednesday's second-half defensive effort) was with the defense on the other side of the court,” Gregory said, referring to Tech playing defense on the far side of the court, unable to be directed from the bench. “So it was just our guys, and that’s what I was disappointed in Sunday. We didn’t defend in the second half as well and so our guys took it to heart. That was much more indicative of how we want to play all the time.”
Perhaps the most critical sequence took place after Manu Lecomte hit a 3-pointer to draw Miami to 51-43 with 8:00 to play. On the next possession, guard Chris Bolden was called for palming or cradling the ball. Going into a TV timeout, it looked a lot like the Jackets might buckle. A Miami basket would have cut the lead to six for the first time in the second half and perhaps introduced some doubts into the minds of Tech players.
However, guard Corey Heyward stayed in front of Sheldon McClellan well enough to challenge on a missed shot near the basket and forward Marcus Georges-Hunt pounced on the rebound. On Tech’s possession, guard Travis Jorgenson got caught in a trap near halfcourt. Again, it was the sort of spot where the Jackets often fumbled in the first seven games. But he found Bolden on the sideline who whipped a pass into the post to center Demarco Cox, who scored on an easy lay-in to return the lead to 10 with 6:59 left.
“It’s the same system, and the same players,” Gregory said. “You have to make some plays. That’s an offensive play. … We made those tonight, and we’re capable of making them. The key is we’ve got to be consistent.”
Miami guard James Palmer missed a 3-pointer on the next trip down, and Georges-Hunt found Cox rolling to the basket on a screen-and-roll for an easy dunk. Two easy baskets off smart offensive play in crucial situations. That hasn't been the norm.
“Guys made the extra pass, and, to be honest with you, there’ve been times we’ve done that, but we finished plays at the rim tonight, which was important,” Gregory said.
2. Georges-Hunt played a career game. He scored 24 points, one short of his career high, on an absurd 10-for-12 shooting night. Nearly all of his baskets were scored close to the basket, including an uncontested dunk with 3:12 to go off an inbounds pass from guard Chris Bolden. It made the score 61-45 and was an emphatic exclamation on the upset. On the sideline inbounds pass from near halfcourt, every Miami player was above the 3-point arc. Georges-Hunt broke free from coverage, caught Bolden’s pass going to the basket and dunked emphatically.
“I looked (Bolden) right in the eye,” Georges-Hunt said. “I gave him a look. He just threw it over the top. It wasn’t a designed play.”
He added six rebounds, three assists and three steals in 36 minutes. To this point, this hasn’t been the smoothest season for him, as he has borne the mantle of leadership and principal scorer, which has meant getting the ball a lot in pressure situations.
He has had two efficient scoring games back-to-back – he scored 20 on 7-for-13 shooting against Boston College Sunday.
“He’s been great, and sometimes it appears that the weight of the world is o his shoulders,” Gregory said. “He’s our go-to guy. He’s not able to take a play off offensively or defensively. He’s just not. That’s one of the reasons he came here, too. That’s one of the reasons he’s developed into one of the best players in the league and he’s going to keep getting better. His ability to finish at the basket tonight was great. He just made good decisions, constantly good decisions. That was good to see. Nobody deserves it more than him.”
One of the best parts for Georges-Hunt? He was back home. He lived in South Miami, Fla., about five minutes from the University of Miami, until he was 10. He said there were about 20 family members in attendance. He said Wednesday’s win was even bigger than the win there in 2013, when his buzzer-beating tip-in knocked off then-No. 6 Miami in his freshman year.
“It can get frustrating at times, but we stuck together,” he said. “We’re family, we’re brothers, and we just went out there and had fun.”
3. The challenge now is carrying this forward. Getting the first win was crucial, but it won’t mean much if it doesn’t start a resurgence. I’m not sure how much this readjusts the outlook for the rest of the ACC schedule. It’s an important and noteworthy win, but it’s still one win. It doesn't necessarily erase the habits or flaws demonstrated in the first seven ACC games. That said, it's also the same team that was 9-3 in the non-conference and very nearly won many of those first seven ACC games.
Regardless, it does reinforce what the Jackets are capable of doing. There’s no reason that Tech can’t beat N.C. State on Saturday at home. There’s another five games (Wake Forest, at Virginia Tech, Florida State and Clemson twice) in which the opponent won’t be any tougher than Miami.
It’s just the degree to which Tech can replicate the smart, consistent play that it demonstrated Wednesday.
"We’re a competitive team,” Gregory said. “We’re able to compete with just about anybody, and now the next step is being to move from competing to finishing. We did that tonight.”
Etc.: The 20-point margin of victory tied for the second-largest margin in an ACC win in Gregory's tenure (Wake Forest, 2013, 82-62). ... The 56.8 percent shooting was the highest of the season. ... Bolden played a season-high 33 minutes and tied his season high with four rebounds. His 13 points was one shy of his season high. ... The Jackets were 18-for-22 from the free-throw line. In ACC games, Tech is shooting 73.4 percent. ... Miami coach Jim Larranaga: "We are very inconsistent at giving effort." ... Tech athletic director Mike Bobinski, in south Florida for ACC meetings, attended the game.