WINSTON-SALEM, NC— Georgia Tech finished their best ACC regular season since 1995-96 with a 75-63 win over Wake Forest on Senior Night for the Demon Deacons. Coming off a pair of emotional wins over Duke in overtime and Syracuse in regulation, the Jackets had a slow start, but Tech was able to control most of the second-half picking up their sixth straight ACC win to close things out.
Jackets’ head coach Josh Pastner’s program has won 22 regular-season ACC games in the last two years a school record at Tech. He spoke about the gauntlet his team ran in the final weeks of the season to finish with 11 wins despite not playing three games due to Covid issues against three of the worst teams in the league Boston College, at Notre Dame, and at NC State.
“That’s a hard game for us. Our guys knew the pressure,” Pastner said after the game. “All I’ve talked about in the last 48 hours was the 1980 ‘Miracle on Ice’ that the USA beat Russia in the 1980 semi-final hockey game. I talked to our guys about this. It is all people talked about. But people don’t realize that that was a semifinal game. The gold medal game was another a night or two later versus Finland and in order to get the gold medal, you had to beat Russia and Finland, but all people talk about was that game but the gold medal game was the next game. So I talked to our guys it was beating Duke was our game wasn’t that wasn’t the gold medal game. The gold medal game was Wake Forest. Beating Duke allowed us to get to the gold medal game. And our guys knew the pressure, the weight on our shoulders.”
Pastner said that going into the game guards Jose Alvarado and Bubba Parham as well as forward Khalid Moore had been unable or extremely limited in practices leading up to Friday’s game with various bangs and bruises.
With Alvarado playing hurt, Mike Devoe stepped up and led all scorers with 20 points and he added five rebounds and a blocked shot for the Jackets. He did a lot of his offensive damage around the rim rather than outside continuing a trend of interior scoring in some of Tech’s recent wins.
“I think for myself I really know my game so when I come out in Tech mode and do a lot of different things it is hard for teams to defend,” Devoe said. “We have a lot of guys (who can score) so it is hard for them to defend me when I’m aggressive.”
Moses Wright had a slow start but finished the game with 17 points, four rebounds, and three assists while Jordan Usher added 14 points and three steals and Jose Alvarado hit double-digit scoring with 11 points, four steals, five assists, and four rebounds.
Wright said his slow start was in part due to mounting pressure and not really having a long bank of experience to draw on related to how to deal with it on the court given he has only been playing basketball competitively for five or six years.
“I had a couple of turnovers early and dropped a couple of balls,” he said. “It was just those jitters of this being an important game and everything. I’m a young basketball player and I’ve never had this opportunity. In high school, I didn’t have this type of opportunity at a postseason chance. We had a little conference tournament and we were out in the first round in high school so I wasn’t really whatever. This was a big game. This is all new to me and I’m just trying to take it one step at a time. At halftime, the coaches and players were telling me to keep my head up and shake it off and it was all going to come to me.”
The Jackets battled foul trouble in the second half as Devoe, Wright, and Usher each had three fouls by the 12:43 mark in the game. Wake battled back after Usher picked up his fourth foul with 11:38 left, from down 13 to make it a 5-point game, but the Jackets went on an 8-0 run to make it 13 again 58-45 with seven minutes to go.
Georgia Tech held a slim 31-25 lead at the half mainly due to an excess of turnovers early in the game. The Jackets had nine turnovers at the break while forcing Wake into seven. Mike Devoe had nine points and five rebounds to lead Tech’s offense in the first half while Ian DuBose had 10 points for the Deacons. Jordan Usher picked up three first-half fouls with the third coming with 5:09 left in the half and the game tied at 23 all. Rodney Howard played his most effective half of play so far as a Jacket with four points and two rebounds coming in for Wright after he had a couple of turnovers.
“We were all nervous because you know about how big this game was for the postseason. I mean, I was nervous, nervous as crap going into the game because I didn’t want to lose that game and lose our chances at the NCAA Tournament,” Wright said. “We shook off those jitters in the second half and just came out and played.”
Devoe said what a lot of people watching the first half were thinking, the Jackets looked a little flat and he said the pressure of the game coming off an emotional win over Duke in overtime led guys to play too tight.
“I feel like that guys were kind of tight,” Devoe said of the first half. “When we were in the game, I felt a little bit of a pressure game. But then we started to get in our comfort zone and we started playing the way we were supposed to be playing. We came out with a little bit of like I said low energy. And after we realize hey, man, this is we’re supposed to have fun. This is a game of basketball that we enjoy playing. So just come out in the second half, we came out with a lot of energy. And that’s where I got our lead from.”
Wake Forest coach Steve Forbes who is in a role similar to Josh Pastner’s first year at Georgia Tech with a makeshift roster in a total rebuild had a lot of nice things to say about the Jackets who his team faced twice this season at the beginning of January and then again in the regular-season finale on Friday for both teams.
“I was talking to Josh Pastner before the game and I was complimenting him on the team that he has, I think they’re really good. They got two of the better players, maybe three of the better players in our league and in the point guard, Alvarado, the post player Wright great player, and Devoe is really good. I think they really know who they are. They run their stuff, they execute, they play pretty good defense. Credit to Georgia Tech, they’re an NCAA tournament team and are a team that can go in a game or two in the NCAA tournament, and Josh has done a really good job this year, fighting through a lot of things to get his team to where they’re at.”
Next up the Jackets will play the waiting game to see where they are seeded in the ACC Tournament in Greensboro next week. If Virginia beats Louisville, the Jackets will clinch the fourth seed and a double-bye.
Somewhat ironically Pastner predicted the 2020-21 season is the culmination of his rebuild when he was hired five years ago. He remembered that moment after the Wake Forest win.
“I said, five years, we get to the NCAA tournament, we were going to do it in five years, we were going to get there. That weight is on your shoulders and we were right there and going through everything and so it’s more just that. We’ll have time when the season’s over. I like to say when you’re out in the forest out of the woods, in a sense, because you know, right now you’re just deep in the woods deep in the forest. When it’s all said and done, you can look back and we say wow, but right now it’s more you just to get to this point, it’s almost an exhaustion. And, so it’s obviously, you don’t take it for granted, but it’s probably exhaustion of its excitement. It’s incredible.”
A jubilant Pastner even thanked his predecessor for changing some of the culture around the program and increasing the buy-in from the players.
“I also want to give a good shout out to Brian Gregory, because I thought Brian Gregory, the culture that we took over, he left we have great kids,” Pastner said. “We obviously had some good players, so Brian Gregory did a nice job there and when I came in. yes, it was a built (the culture) and we had to start and we had to go from the bottom of top. But Brian Gregory did a great job with culture. Obviously, he did a great job with players, you know, sometimes you just need a little energy, switch, and energy.”