The game lacked points, but did not lack for tension. Riding the support of a sellout crowd that was mostly supporting the home team, Georgia Tech emerged the winner in a defensive struggle over Syracuse, 55-51, Wednesday night at McCamish Pavilion.
It was the fewest points that Tech has scored in a win since the 52-51 last-second victory over Northwestern in November. While the Yellow Jackets led the entire way, the game had a taut feel in which it seemed every possession was critical and potentially game-changing. Tech (11-11 overall, 4-5 ACC) ended a four-game losing streak with superior defense and a combined 35 points from guards Josh Okogie (20) and Tadric Jackson (15).
Syracuse (15-7, 4-4) was led by guard Tyus Battle’s 19 points.
Here are five observations from the game:
1. Big night for Tadric Jackson
Jackson measured up to the moment, pitching in 15 points on 7-for-12 shooting while adding four rebounds, three assists and no turnovers in 28 minutes. The performance followed back-to-back games in which he was something of a non-factor (five combined points) and drew coach Josh Pastner’s ire for his failure to contribute.
Jackson made a deft pass early, driving baseline and sending a bounce pass to Okogie in the opposite corner for a 3-pointer. He hit his own 3-pointer off an inbounds pass. Perhaps his most significant contribution occurred in the second half, when he slipped behind the Syracuse 2-3 zone four times over the course of seven possessions for scores, taking passes from guard Brandon Alston and three from center Ben Lammers. The scores helped keep Tech in the lead when points were hard to come by.
“I was doing the exact same thing every time,” Jackson said. “I wasn’t changing up. Why change it up when I was scoring it every time?”
Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim said that one forward on the zone did not react properly.
“We had to play Lammers – he’s a good player – and our one forward got back and the other one did not,” Boeheim said. “He should have.”
Jackson’s career has been defined in part by up-and-down performance, but Okogie said he knew Jackson would be ready Wednesday morning when he stayed after the team shootaround to work on a variety of shots. Pastner said it was without question his best game of the season. He also cleared the 1,000-point mark for his career, becoming the 44th player in school history to reach that milestone.
“That’d Tadric,” Okogie said. “He may have a game or two games where he may struggle offensively, but we’ve never said, ‘Come on, come on.’ We already know.”
2. Alston shows his spirit
Alston played under the most trying circumstances. His father Michael died Tuesday night of a heart attack. Pastner said that Alston told him that he would play because that is what his father would have wanted.
Alston, a graduate transfer from Lehigh, scored four points on two fast-break opportunities, had three assists with three rebounds.
He proved essential when forward Abdoulaye Gueye left the game in the second half with an ankle injury, leaving Tech with just five of the players that Pastner uses in his rotation, as the team had determined prior to the game to shut down guard Curtis Haywood for the remainder of the season with a stress reaction in his right leg.
“Just an incredible display of courage for Brandon to play his heart out tonight for us in honor of his father Michael,” Pastner wrote from his Twitter account.
3. Good defense vs. bad offense
Syracuse shot 30 percent for the game, tying its season low. The Jackets were effective at denying the Orange’s two main scoring threats, guards Tyus Battle and Frank Howard, clear looks at the basket, both inside the 3-point arc and beyond it. They were both 4-for-17 from the field and a combined 4-for-15 from 3-point range, scoring a relatively inefficient 30 points.
“Coach (Pastner) made a key point to us,” Okogie said. “They’re a good one-on-one team. They love to ‘iso’ so what we try to do is we try to make five guys guard one, so when one person has the ball, everybody’s zoning up, so when he’s trying to drive, he’s seeing bodies. We did a good job of stopping those drives.”
Tech was also effective using its quickness and effort to create steals and win loose balls. Point guard Jose Alvarado and Okogie both had four steals each and Tech had nine.
Syracuse has shot worse than 30 percent only once in the past eight seasons, according to sports-reference.com.
“Our offense is terrible,” Boeheim said. “It’s been terrible all year.”
Boeheim said that the Orange had six transition opportunities and didn’t score on any of them.
“You can’t be any worse than that,” he said.
4. Winning ugly
Tech’s defense (and Syracuse’s clunky offense) enabled the Jackets to win while not doing much with the ball themselves.
Tech shot its season-low, 33.3 percent, but gave itself a chance by turning the ball over nine times, the second game in a row with nine. That followed a three-game stretch in which the Jackets coughed up the ball 49 times.
The Jackets particularly helped themselves by taking advantage of Syracuse turnover and misses for 16 fast-break points. Okogie was particularly effective running the floor for baskets, scoring the game’s first points by catching a throwahead pass from Alston over his shoulder like a wide receiver before dunking. In the second half, he got behind the defense and threw down an alley-oop pass that point guard Jose Alvarado sent just after he crossed halfcourt.
“That was a big point,” Okogie said. “Last couple games, we haven’t really got a lot of fast-break points, and we haven’t been running the fast break, so we’re kind of saying, ‘Let’s try and get stops and run in transition and kind of get some quick points so we don’t really have to set our offense.”
At other times, Syracuse’s zone and Tech’s strategy to limit possessions caused rushed shots and ungainly forays at the basket.
“We wanted to muck the game up,” Pastner said. “We wanted to keep it a lower-possession game, which I thought was to our advantage.”
Tech had not won a game shooting 33.3 percent or lower since November 2010, according to sports-reference.com, losing 14 in a row before Wednesday. After a four-game losing streak, Tech was happy to get a win in any form.
“I know it’s the thrill of victory, but it’s the relief of victory,” Pastner said. “We needed a win.”
5. Playing a man down
With Haywood shelved for the remainder of the season, Tech will try to ride out the season with a six-man rotation. On Wednesday, Alvarado and Lammers both played all 40 minutes and Okogie played 39.
Pastner said that freshman forward Evan Cole will have to be ready. A little more than a week ago, Pastner decided to put Cole, forward Moses Wright and center Sylvester Ogbonda on a “redshirt” program, meaning they are to train like players redshirting the season, with extra strength and skill work sessions on top of practice.
“We’ll just take it game by game and that’s what we’ll do,” Pastner said. “We’ll have to keep guys fresh.”
Pastner had decided recently to try to rest Lammers and Okogie more, a plan that may go by the wayside with just one sub that he has shown he trusts (Jackson).