Feb. 3, 2013
By Matt Winkeljohn
Brian Gregory can give countless pep talks and senior Mfon Udofia can pat his younger teammates on the back time and again, but Georgia Tech's Yellow Jackets will find no greater feedback than what they earned in Sunday's 66-60 win over Virginia.
For a downtrodden program that fancies itself as rising from ashes, there is no better way to reinforce a coach's repeated plea that his plan will work than beating an opponent whom you definitely were not supposed to beat. That's true inside and out.
Tech (12-8, 2-6 ACC) was balanced as Udofia had 15 points, Robert Carter Jr. and Chris Bolden scored 14 each, and Kammeon Holsey added 12 off the bench. More than anything, however, Sunday was evidence that Tech has emerging moxie.
“You saw glimpses of how we want our program to look. That toughness, that grit, plus all the other stuff . . . today was the first time I thought you saw longer glimpses of that,” Gregory said. “Yeah, there's some validation today. It's harder sometimes [to find] after losses . . . I want our players to believe in what we're doing, and I think they do.”
Better still, the Jackets beat the Cavaliers at their own game – which is similar to what Gregory has in mind for Tech – while at the same time reversing a script that had in previous losses fostered doubt. Tech didn't wilt down the stretch; the Jackets owned it with defense, and above-expectations offense.
Tech trailed by nine with 8:12 left in McCamish Pavilion. Virginia (15-6, 5-3 ACC) had won four straight conference games, including a rout of North Carolina.
Yet against the ACC's stingiest defense (52.3 points allowed per game), the Jackets outscored Virginia 18-3 from there. They shot 50 percent in the second half, and made all the money balls down the stretch.
For good measure, Tech held Virginia without a field goal for 9:05 to rescue a game that looked lost, especially after the defense went limp late in the first half. Virginia closed that one with a 20-8 run to lead 37-28.
It has been a couple years since this happened at Tech. The last time the Jackets went in as a decisive home underdog and came out a winner was when they beat North Carolina 78-58 on Jan. 16, 2011.
Iman Shumpert and Glen Rice Jr. matched career highs that day with 30 and 24 points, respectively. Historians will note, however, that in that game as in Sunday's . . . lockdown defense came greatly to bear.
The Tar Heels' 27.6 percent shooting that day was the worst UNC effort in 56 years. Sunday, Virginia made just 8-of-28 shots (28.6 percent) in the second half after shooting 51.9 percent in the first.
To further distill, after Evan Nolte made Virginia's ninth and final 3-pointer to give the Cavs a 54-48 lead with 9:40 left in the contest, the visitors missed 12 straight shots until Jontel Evans got loose for a layup with 35 seconds remaining to cut Tech's lead to 63-60.
Virginia missed 12 straight shots from the field in that stretch, and four of them were blocked by the Jackets (two by Daniel Miller and one each by Carter and Holsey). Several more were altered. Joe Harris scored 14 in the first half for the Cavs. In the second, he made 1-of-5 shots and turned the ball over three times.
Tech had six of its nine offensive rebounds in the second half, when the Jackets outscored Virginia 11-3 in second-chance points. In the first half, Virginia led that category 6-0.
Halftime speeches can be cliché, but maybe Gregory and Udofia said something important. “Mfon told us to stay positive,” Holsey said.
The coach preached, too.
“I told them we're going to get this game into the last two minutes,” Gregory said. “We're going to do it differently than in the last two minutes of the first half. We're going to execute well, defend well and we're going to end up winning in the last two minutes.”
Defense is largely about want-to, about toughness of mental and physical sorts.
The Cavs make it tougher by holding the ball, testing your patience and concentration.
Yet with the game tied at 57 after Bolden had used a fine screen from Daniel Miller to hit a 15-footer, the Jackets dug in for 78 straight seconds without possessing the ball. Gregory's beloved defense was redeemed. Virginia did not score.
In that stretch, Tech fouled and Virginia forward Akil Mitchell missed a contested jumper, Miller blocked another Mitchell shot from point-blank range and Miller altered yet another Mitchell bunny.
Carter Jr. – who like Miller had eight rebounds – grabbed the defensive carom on that one in heavy traffic. He also rebounded Bolden's missed jumper at the other end. That led to Udofia's jumper in the lane, for a 59-57 lead, with 1:19 left.
Over the game's final 8:12, where Anderson hit those free throws, the Jackets out-rebounded the Cavs 11-6, registered four of their five blocked shots and forced four turnovers. McCamish was rocking, and Bolden said, “We needed that.” In the final minute, the Jackets were collective nerves of steel while making 7-of-8 free throws.
A lot of hard work, which Gregory said has included “spending a lot of time [encouraging] players off the court,” came to fruition. The coach likes to say that he's a big believer in process, and that hard work invested in a wise plan leads to performance taking care of itself.
He admitted, though, that nothing validates the premise like winning.
“We don't live in a vacuum, not with the internet and people around. It's hard on [players] because they want to do well,” Gregory said. “Outside of our team, doing well means winning games.”
Rock-solid win, that was. The toughness that Gregory talks about so often was there for all to see over the final 10 minutes or so. Comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.