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MORNING AFTER: Jackets Suffer Catastrophic Loss to Grambling State, 64-63

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No point in sugarcoating it—this was an unmitigated disaster

NCAA Basketball: Louisville at Georgia Tech Jason Getz-USA TODAY Sports

No, it wasn’t just a bad dream. Tech really did lose to Grambling State, a SWAC school, in men’s basketball.

The final score was 64-63. The game wasn’t particularly close until the final minutes, and Grambling got the winning basket courtesy of an accidental tip-in by a Tech player.

It’s a lot to digest. None of it is pleasant.

With 10 minutes left in the game, the Jackets trailed 47-31, having scored just 31 points in 30 minutes at home against one of the weakest opponents on their schedule.

That was when things finally started clicking. Winger Curtis Haywood sparked a rally with a pair of three-pointers—one with 9:11 remaining that started Tech’s comeback, and another two minutes later that cut the deficit to single digits. From there, point guard Jose Alvarado caught fire from beyond the arc, draining threes on three straight possessions as the Jackets chipped away at the lead even more. When he drained a fourth with 1:02 left, Tech finally pulled ahead, 61-60.

After the teams traded free throws, the score was 63-62 in Tech’s favor when an errant inbound pass gave Grambling the ball with 37 seconds left. Guard Ivy Smith Jr. ran down the shot clock and went in for a layup, but it was way off the mark. The ball rebounded away from the Grambling players under the basket and toward Haywood and Ben Lammers. They both went up for it, and for a moment, it looked like Tech might just escape in the end after all.

Then the ball bounced off Haywood’s hands... and right into the basket.

The actual moment was utterly bewildering. It was the basketball equivalent of the Miracle on Jordan-Hare: a seemingly perfect defensive situation, with two guys ready to play the ball, that somehow ended in complete disaster. Instead of heading to the free throw line with a one-point lead, Tech was suddenly down 64-63 and had just six seconds to get down the floor and score.

They were in a very similar situation earlier this week against Northwestern. That one ended with Alvarado dishing to Tadric Jackson for a layup at the buzzer to give Tech a huge victory. This time, Alvarado took the shot himself... but it was off target.

The buzzer sounded, and reality set in. Tech, an ACC school fresh off a victory over a good Northwestern team, had lost to a SWAC opponent that entered the day ranked No. 338 out of 351 Division I teams in Ken Pomeroy’s rankings (and is only up to No. 330 after the win).

The way the game ended was wildly improbable and heartbreaking for the players involved in that accidental tip-in. But to say the Jackets were victims of a bad ending is to miss the point. This was a game that Tech should have won by double digits at a minimum. It should never have been a contest.

The first half was ugly but even, with both teams shooting below 40 percent from the field as Grambling took a 25-23 lead into the locker room. Lammers was having a rough day on the offensive end as he continues to play through an ankle injury. The senior contributed defensively with seven rebounds and four blocks in the first half, but he went 0-for-6 from the field in that span. Nearly all of Tech’s first-half scoring came from Jackson and Brandon Alston, who combined for 20 points.

The Jackets continued to look listless to start the second half, but the Tigers looked sharp out of the gate and started the latter half on a 9-0 run. The run was capped by a three-pointer by Deontay Jones, who added five more as Grambling kept up the heat and built up a 16-point lead at 47-31.

In a game that Tech should have controlled from start to finish, it looked like they would be run out of their own arena by a SWAC opponent. They engineered the late comeback to close the gap, but it ended up not being enough.

None of this is meant to take away from the effort by the Tigers, who played an outstanding game and picked up a massive victory for their program and for first-year head coach Donte’ Jackson. They shot 44.4 percent from the field, combining effective inside scoring with accurate shooting from outside, and they won the rebounding battle 36-32 despite Tech’s size advantage on the block.

The star of the game for them was Jones, a 6-foot-6 winger who put up 18 points and nine rebounds and was 4-for-6 from three-point range. Smith, the point guard, added 14 points and six assists and hit a pair of timely shots to keep Grambling on track when Alvarado caught fire late in the game. Forward Axel Mpoyo had 14 points and eight rebounds.

All in all, the Tigers had few weaknesses in their game on Friday. The Jackets, meanwhile, played poorly in multiple respects.

The two that stood out were three-point shooting and free throws. The Jackets closed the game by hitting seven of their final eight shots from long range as Alvarado and Haywood caught fire from beyond the arc, but up to that point they were 3-for-19 from outside. That belies a larger issue: Tech was often content to settle for three-point attempts instead of trying to attack the basket against a fairly vulnerable opponent. Those missed threes often led to points at the other end for Grambling, allowing the visiting squad to build and sustain momentum.

Even worse for Tech was the performance at the free throw line. The Jackets collectively shot 11-for-22 at the stripe. In a game that was decided by one point, they left 11 free points on the court.

The one player who was at the top of his game was Alvarado, who finished with a career-high 22 points (20 in the second half) on 6-for-12 shooting and had four assists. He was instrumental in Tech’s comeback and is continuing to cement himself as the team’s biggest offensive threat at point guard in several years. Jackson finished with 19 points and had some success attacking the basket, but he was off his game otherwise: the senior was just 3-for-8 on free throws—including two whiffs in the final minute of the game—and missed all five of his three-point attempts.

Haywood and Alston each had nine points, with all of those coming on three-pointers. Lammers finished with nine rebounds and seven blocks, but he had just one second-half shot attempt and finished with just four points. He wasn’t the only frontcourt player to struggle offensively, though; forwards A.D. Gueye, Evan Cole, and Moses Wright combined for zero points.

The loss is disastrous for Tech’s postseason hopes, but it’s not fatal... yet. The Jackets already have a decent non-conference win, and they can offset the damage by beating Tennessee and Georgia and getting at least 8-9 wins in ACC play.

But none of that will erase last night’s outcome. The Jackets just lost to a SWAC team that, according to ESPN Stats and Info, had lost its last 63 games against major-conference opponents by an average of nearly 35 points per game. Granted, it’s possible that Grambling makes major strides under new coach Donte’ Jackson this season and proves to be a much better team than predicted... but even if they do, it won’t make this even a remotely acceptable loss for Tech.

But all of that is speculation that might be moot. If the Jackets aren’t able to sort out the glaring issues that emerged last night, they won’t be beating anyone else of note and won’t be playing any postseason basketball beyond the first round of the ACC Tournament.

Josh Okogie can’t get back soon enough.