5 observations from Georgia Tech’s loss to Grambling State

With an uninspired effort and a singularly unlucky finish, Georgia Tech lost 64-63 to Grambling State on Friday night at McCamish Pavilion. Against a Tigers team that had started the season 1-5, the Yellow Jackets didn’t take care of the ball and were outplayed on defense.

Tech did make a late run, but it wasn’t enough to outdo Grambling State. The Jackets are now 4-2.

Here are five observations from the game:

1. This was not a matter of Tech going through an extended cold streak or experiencing any such misfortune. The Jackets played without energy for the first 30 minutes and paid dearly for it.

Passes were imprecise. The Jackets, not a good or even decent 3-point shooting team, was too often satisfied to shoot 3-pointers over Grambling State’s zone rather than try to work possessions for better shots. Mistakes were made in coverages on defense. Grambling State had permitted its first six opponents to shoot 51.2 percent from the field. The Jackets managed 38.9 percent.

From the start, coach Josh Pastner was rotating players frequently, trying to find a player that could give the team a jolt. He could be heard yelling “Wake up, Ben!” at center Ben Lammers during a stoppage in play in the first half. After the stunning win over Northwestern on Tuesday, Pastner said he had a sense that his team was not taking the game seriously and kept warning players that it could have repercussions, and he was prophetic.

“They deserved to win the game,” Pastner said. “They just played with more energy, and I hate saying that for a team that I’m with.”

2. Tech was down 47-31 at the 10-minute mark of the second half before rallying behind the 3-point shooting of freshman guards Jose Alvarado and Curtis Haywood, who were a combined 7-for-8 from 3-point range in the final 10 minutes, the last of which (from Alvarado) gave Tech a 61-60 lead with 1:02 to play, the Jackets’ first lead since late in the first half.

However, Tech was unable to seal the game. Alvarado made a pair of free throws with 43.1 seconds remaining for a 63-60 lead, but guard Brandon Alston committed a needless foul in the backcourt on the ensuing inbounds pass, defending too aggressively. Tigers guard Ivy Smith made two free throws to cut the lead to one.

Tech then turned the ball over in the backcourt and Grambling State had a 3-pointer to take the lead, but it missed, and guard Tadric Jackson was fouled with 34.4 seconds left after rebounding the ball.

However, Jackson, who was the hero of Tuesday’s win over Northwestern with a buzzer-beating layup, missed both free throws.

“I’ve just got to man up and knock ’em down,” said Jackson, a 57 percent free-throw shooter last season. “There’s no excuse for missed free throws.”

The misses set up the Tigers’ final possession and a most incredulous finish. Smith drove the lane off a screen, and his layup attempt was off, but Haywood and Lammers both went for the ball, and Haywood accidentally tipped the ball in.

“It was just a freak play that slipped out of Curt’s hands and went in the rim,” Pastner said.

“The basketball gods were on our side,” Grambling State coach Donte’ Jackson said.

Unlike Tuesday, when Alvarado took the inbounds pass and fed Jackson for the game-winning basket, Alvarado got off the last shot, taken to the right of the lane, but was off target.

3. For Grambling State, which had lost five of its first six games, it was a monumental victory. According to ESPN, the Tigers had lost their past 63 games against opponents from power conferences by an average of 34.7 points. The Tigers play out of the SWAC, arguably the weakest league in Division I, and finished last season ranked 321st out of 351 teams in RPI. Jackson, the Tigers’ first-year coach, called it a “huge” win for the team. 

4. Lammers was unusually quiet on offense, scoring four points on 1-for-7 shooting with no assists and four turnovers. He was 2-for-5 from the free-throw line. He did have nine rebounds and seven blocks. (By comparison, his average ACC game last year: 5.9-for-12.6, 2.1 assists, 1.9 turnovers,  2.7-for-3.5 from the free-throw line, 8.8 rebounds, 3.0 blocks.) Lammers sprained his ankle against Bethune-Cookman in the second game of the season and has not practiced since, joining the team only for games.

The layoff evidently has hampered Lammers, through whom Tech runs its offense and defense. The injury appears to have cost him some of the agility and quickness that helped him win ACC defensive player-of-the-year honors last season.

“He’s been out of sync, but 40 to 50 percent Ben Lammers is better for us than no percent Ben Lammers,” Pastner said. “We don’t really have any other option without Ben there right now. But he wasn’t really good (Friday), obviously.”

Pastner said after the team plays Tennessee on Sunday and Wofford on Wednesday, Lammers will not practice for a week while the team goes through final exams. Tech’s next game after Wofford won’t come until Dec. 17, against Florida A&M.

5. There’s time for this loss to be put by the wayside and outweighed by quality wins. It bears mention that guard Josh Okogie is still out for NCAA rules violations and also as he recovers from an dislocated left index finger that became infected.

But it was truly a brutal defeat. In the Brian Gregory era, it probably outdoes the December 2014 home loss to USC-Upstate (ranked 181st that season by KenPom) and the December 2011 road loss to Fordham (270th). In the era of Paul Hewitt, it compares with the November 2010 loss at Kennesaw State (317th) and the January 2011 home loss to Charlotte (207th).

Time will tell for these Tigers, but they last finished inside the KenPom top 300 in the 2003-04 season.

“There’s no denying this is a bad loss for us,” Pastner said. “We’ll have to make it up along the way at other spots.”

It speaks to the reality that, without Okogie and with Lammers and Jackson both off their game, the Jackets can be a pretty mediocre entity.

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