Everybody was looking for direction, but in the past four games all Georgia Tech had given us was a spinning compass. Lose to Georgia, beat Duke. Lose to Virginia, win at North Carolina.
Next home game: Dramamine to the first 2,500 in attendance?
Well, maybe the Jackets finally established some general direction Tuesday night. With an opportunity to fall flat again, they didn’t. Yes, there were turnovers. There were missed shots. There were just enough of those what-are-you-thinking kind of moments that left you wondering if this season would be one long tease.
But in the end, Tech won. Again. Over a ranked team. Again.
Seldom does a Tuesday night game against Clemson in mid-January stir the masses. But the 66-64 win over the Tigers at Alexander Memorial Coliseum wasn’t without some historical significance. It was the first time Tech won consecutive games against ranked teams in six years. The previous time: the regional final over Kansas and the Final Four semifinal over Oklahoma State.
There has been a lot of disappointment since.
More important was what we saw from this team and what it might project.
“Young teams are what I like to call feel-good teams,” coach Paul Hewitt said. “When they’re making shots and making plays, they’re all jumping around and everything is great. But veterans know sometimes things don’t go well, and they continue to play hard any way.
“A lot of things didn’t go well tonight. We missed some shots and some plays. But the one thing we talked about before the game was no matter what happens, keep playing hard. These guys did that. They showed some resolve. This is big for their confidence.”
Nobody’s confidence is higher right now than freshman Derrick Favors. He took over the game in one stretch in the first half. He dominated around the basket, and finished with 17 points, 14 rebounds, three blocks, one steal and only one turnover. He did all of this in front of the usual row of scouts from NBA teams that likely will be fighting for him in the draft next summer.
“You can tell he’s getting more and more comfortable,” Hewitt said.
Clemson in January wouldn’t be considered a swing game in most seasons. But this year is different. The Jackets have missed the NCAA tournament three of the past four seasons. Hewitt has faced increasing criticism and perceptions of underachieving teams. The talent this season screams a high ceiling. But the roller-coaster consecutive performances against Georgia, Duke, Virginia and North Carolina screamed inconsistency.
So how would Tech respond after winning at Chapel Hill for the first time since 1996? In the early stages, not well. The Jackets trailed 9-2 out of the box. Six minutes into the game, they were 5-for-16 from the floor with four turnovers. Then they made nine consecutive shots and took a 31-21 lead.
But they started to shows cracks in the second half. They led 43-34 before going cold from the outside again. They turned the ball over a few times. They were outscored 14-4 to fall behind 48-47.
“I’m not sure if we were fatigued or what happened there,” Hewitt said.
Fast forward: The game was tied 64-all with less than a minute remaining. Mfon Udolfia traveled. Here we go again? No. Clemson responded with a turnover of its own. The Jackets came back. Zachery Peacock was fouled and made two free throws with 3.2 seconds left, giving Tech the lead. One more defensive stop, and it was over.
“I loved the fact we never quit,” Hewitt said. “When you’re a young team like we are, you know some things won’t go right, but you can control how hard you play. This was pretty big for these guys.”
Finally, maybe, direction.