Tonight, Georgia Tech lost a heart breaker of a game to NC State, falling 71-69. Down double digits late and by nine in the final minute, the Yellow Jackets never gave up and had a good look for Tadric Jackson (17 points off the bench) to win the game at the buzzer that ultimately bounced off the rim, no good.
The Wolfpack led for most of the game, and were paced by the hot shooting of senior guard Terry Henderson, who led State in scoring with 21 points on 7-11 shooting (3-5 behind the arc). Henderson caught fire in the first half to help build the Pack’s lead. Freshman phenom Dennis Smith, Jr. (18 points, 3 steals, only 2 assists to 4 turnovers) was quiet most of the game before stepping up in a big way late in the second half. Smith nailed two threes with a hand in his face and the shot clock ticking down that appeared to be the nails in Tech’s coffin.
The Yellow Jackets fought hard late but spent most of the game in a bit of a malaise, missing layups and foul shots left and right. Junior center Ben Lammers in particular looked to be off his game, finishing with a season low 6 points on 1-9 shooting from the field. For much of the first half, the only Jacket would could get anything going was Josh Okogie, who dominated in transition and led all scorers with 25 points.
All due credit goes out to the Wolfpack, who stepped up and played a heck of game just a few days after their coach, Mark Gottfried, was told he wouldn’t be back for next season, but this feels like a game that the Jackets should have been able to win. There are a lot of things to point to that could have changed this game.
If only Tech wasn’t playing just 48 hours after a grueling, down to the wire game against Syracuse.
If only the referees had overturned a basket by NC State that looked to just barely be a shot clock violation upon review.
If only the Jackets had shot their season average from the charity stripe instead of a poor 59.1%.
If only they had made a one or two of their 12 missed layups.
If only Dennis Smith, Jr. had missed one of his two back-breaking three pointers.
There’s no two ways around it, this is a bad loss for Georgia Tech and likely spells the end to their hopes of dancing into March Madness. And yet...
I’m not disappointed.
This team has achieved more than anyone, myself included, thought was possible this season but the fact is they were over due for a loss like this. The Jackets have been playing with fire using a shallow rotation and tonight it caught up to them. Ben Lammers has been a stud this season but he looked tired from the opening tip. It showed in his offensive game, where his reliable fade away wasn't falling and at the free throw line, where he's normally one of the best on the team. He's been on the court for 87.6% of the minutes Tech has played this season, which ranks 56th in all of Division I basketball and 1st among players who primarily play in the post. Against Syracuse on Sunday, just over 48 hours ago, he played 40 grueling minutes to lead the Jackets to a win. Tonight he played 39. He's doing all this while dealing with 3rd year Mechanical Engineering classes.
Lammer's isn't the only one dealing with a heavy minutes load. Since the Tusculum game, Lammers has played 158/160 possible minutes. Josh Heath has played 149/160 possible minutes. Josh Okogie has played 144/160 possible minutes. Quinton Stephens rolled an ankle and sat most of the Boston College game, but has played 116/120 minutes in the three games since. Last season, Marcus Georges-Hunt played the full 40 minutes against Notre Dame on February 20th, becoming the first Georgia Tech player to do so since 1999. This year, Ben Lammers has done that four times and Quinton Stephens has done it five. They have not developed the depth to deal with the rigors of the ACC schedule but have managed to avoid losing a game they should have won. Until tonight. Even still, despite the minutes taking a toll and being down with little time left, the team fought back and had a good look for a chance to win the game.
I could complain about the ACC scheduling Tech with a Tuesday game following a Sunday game (we do the same thing next week, by the way) but I won't. That's what the NCAA Tournament schedule looks like. The ACC Tournament is even more difficult with a game every day. Tonight was an important experience for the players to learn what playing in a tournament environment is like. Hopefully they can take it and use it to make a run in a few weeks in Brooklyn.
Because a run in Brooklyn is what it's going take for this team to go to the NCAA Tournament. They'll probably need to win two or three games in the ACC Tournament or steal a road win from Notre Dame and/or Syracuse plus a win or two in the Tournament to get back on the right side of the bubble. But I'm not disappointed. Just being in this discussion is more than I could have possibly hoped for this season.
Okay, if we’re being honest, there’s a part of me that will be a bit sad if the Jackets don’t hear their name called on Selection Sunday. However, taking a step back and looking at the big picture, if you had told me we would be discussing Georgia Tech playing postseason basketball less than two months ago, when Tech narrowly beat NC A&T (still looking for their first Division I win, by the way), I would have said you were nuts. Yet here we are. The future is bright.
That’s why I’m not disappointed.