Finally, here it was — the game Georgia Tech needed to establish its bona fides. Goodness knows it was the game I needed to prove to myself I haven’t been hallucinating.
Operating under the assumption that this is one of the most talented teams in the land, I could find little in the way of corroborating evidence. Heck, the Jackets had lost to Georgia, among the least gifted teams in the SEC, four nights earlier. But now the same Jackets — the same, but also radically different — unhorsed regal Duke on Saturday.
Here was Mike Krzyzewski, the best in the business, on Tech: “They’re a very talented basketball team, and deep … They have a great three-man rotation with their bigs. [Zachery] Peacock could start for a lot of teams, and the other two [Gani Lawal and Derrick Favors] will be playing basketball for a long time. And that gives a team strength. Even if you’re young on the perimeter, knowing you have those big guys gives you confidence.”
But Tech is more than just big; it’s also skilled. What we witnessed Saturday was the first blush of what could/should be a cohesion of resources. Lawal was terrific. Peacock was the off-the-bench force Duke couldn’t match. The freshman guard Mfon Udofia made half as many 3-pointers as the entire Duke roster. The Jackets as a team stared down the Dookies and Coach K in the final minutes and made the winning plays.
And none of this seemed a fluke. As Lawal said afterward: “We thought this would be a win. Not an upset, but a win.”
The Jackets revved the pace from the start, which didn’t pay immediate dividends but had an aggregate effect. Duke’s Kyle Singler missed 11 of 13 shots; he also played 38 minutes. Jon Scheyer missed 11 of 19; he played 39 minutes. No Jacket worked more than 34. What did Coach K say about Tech being deep?
For once, this wasn’t Paul Hewitt using his depth just for the heck of it. This was a game plan and a substitution rotation with a clear purpose: Press the Devils and wear them down. It worked. Tech was fresher — Peacock’s stickback off a Udofia air ball put Tech ahead to stay — and stronger at the end. And Lawal held it all together and nailed the second-biggest hoop on a turnaround.
Lawal’s shot, we must note, was a play called during Hewitt’s final timeout, which came with 1:24 remaining. I’ve tweaked Hewitt for deploying timeouts to no purpose, but this one got the needed result.
Indeed, that was the theme of the impassioned day: Hewitt coached a fine game, and his men played one. They outrebounded Duke 26-12 in the second half and helped induce the Devils to miss 22 of 28 treys. They got Duke out of its rhythm, always a tough chore.
Krzyzewski: “You’ve got to dance around the ring [in a high-energy] game. You can’t stay on the ropes … They played well. They were the team that deserved to win.”
Coming off the Georgia loss, this was almost a step-up-or-shut-up game for the Jackets. They stepped boldly. Hewitt again said his team didn’t need this victory to prove anything — “I think they know how much they can do” — but you can’t really know until you do it.
And now Tech has done it — once. Skeptics among us will suggest the Jackets will backslide forthwith, but I don’t think so. I think this victory will change the parameters of an entire season. I think we’ll be referencing this game deep into March as the one where Tech began to tap the vast resources within.
Then again, I thought as much last summer, and last month, and Tuesday night in Athens. And I was, I confess, beginning to doubt my eyes if not my sanity. But now I’ve got my proof. Beat Duke and you can play with anybody. Beat Duke and you can go places.