Georgia Tech’s season-long climb ended one rung shy of the top.
Against a team that similarly bucked low expectations, the Yellow Jackets were denied the NIT championship they sought. Tech fell 88-56 to TCU in the NIT final Thursday night at Madison Square Garden.
The Jackets were overmatched by their opponent’s quickness to loose balls and rebounds, a category that they’ve counted on to overcome other deficiencies. The Horned Frogs won 59 percent of the rebounds and scored 21 second-chance points to Tech’s seven.
Only Duke’s perfect-storm victory against Tech January 4 exceeded Thursday night’s loss for margin of victory and points allowed.
“They just came more ready to play and we weren’t able to answer their runs,” center Ben Lammers said.
Tech (21-16) was resigned to runner-up status while TCU (24-15) celebrated its first-ever NIT title. The Horned Frogs shot 51.5 percent from the field while limiting the Jackets to 35.7 percent.
“Obviously, this is not the ending we wanted,” coach Josh Pastner said. “But I’m not going to allow it to steal the joy in the type of season we had and the amount of overachievement we’ve had.”
Five observations from the game:
When the game was lost
Guard Tadric Jackson kept Tech in the game from a scoring standpoint, cutting the lead to 60-49 when he jumped on a loose ball near midcourt and scored on a layup at the 12:09 mark of the second half. It followed one of his two 3-pointers and gave the Jackets some hope.
However, TCU sharpened its edge while the Jackets sputtered. TCU scored on the next two possessions by winning offensive rebounds and Tech turned the ball over on its next three possessions.
The wasted trips allowed TCU to build the lead to 18 points (67-49) by the 9:50 mark, too much of a deficit to overcome. The Horned Frogs continued to surge, putting together a 19-0 run in which 15 of the points were either off of a turnover or off an offensive rebound.
“We would get it, maybe, to eight or seven, and we didn’t come up with a big loose ball or an offensive rebound,” Pastner said. “We never could get close enough to put the pressure back on TCU.”
Jackson led Tech with19 points off the bench.
Tough night for Lammers
Lammers, who earned second-team All-ACC and conference defensive player of the year honors with consistent production on the offensive end and rim-protecting brilliance at the other, was way off his game.
He finished with eight points, six of them scored at the free-throw line, and was 1-for-11 from the field. With seven rebounds, it was just the fifth time this season that he failed to reach double digits in scoring and rebounds. Not surprisingly, Tech was 0-5 in those games.
He was thrown off by playing in foul trouble, status he hadn’t dealt with since the Wake Forest game in the beginning of February. He was hit with his second foul at the 12:10 mark of the first half, and did not challenge shots in his aggressive fashion thereafter. TCU took full advantage, going straight at the rim for dunks and layups. The Horned Frogs were 30-for-53 from 2-point range (56.6 percent), absurd effectiveness against a team that was top 15 in the country in 2-point field-goal percentage defense at 43.2 percent.
“(Foul trouble) always throws you out of rhythm, both offensively and defensively, especially defensively because I can’t do what I normally do,” Lammers said.
The game could scarcely have started worse for the Jackets, who fell behind 10-0, 16-1 and 21-5 before they began to respond. TCU was the aggressor and the sharper and more energetic team at both ends of the floor by a wide margin.
On Tech’s first possession of the game, guard Josh Heath lost the ball on a jump stop in the lane, a turnover that turned into a transition basket. On the next possession, Lammers had his shot blocked. On the fourth possession, guard Josh Okogie missed a makeable layup, resulting in another transition basket. On the seventh possession, Jackson had the ball ripped away from him on the perimeter, leading to another easy transition score.
“Obviously, the start was really the difference in the game the way they started,” Pastner said. “both halves, they had better starts.”
Not wallowing in defeat
After the game, Pastner and players sought to put the loss in the context of a season in which little was expected of them.
“We would never want to end our season to end this way, but I don’t think it takes anything away from what we did this year,” Stephens said.
“These guys have just been crazy good, and these seniors have been phenomenal,” Pastner said.
“The fact that we made it to the championship of the NIT, people would have laughed at us if we would have said it (before the season started),” Lammers said. “All in all, it’s a great season, a great year to have with these guys.”
Paying his due
Pastner removed his starters from the game with 2:19 to play, giving Tech fans in attendance, including school president G.P. “Bud” Peterson and wife Val, a chance to honor them with a standing ovation. Among those leaving the floor were three seniors playing their final game for the Jackets, guard Corey Heyward, Heath and Stephens.
“They have left a lasting legacy,” Pastner said.