Greensboro, N.C. — Here we had it all. On the same night we finally bore witness to the Georgia Tech we’ve been awaiting, we were also confronted by the Georgia Tech of which we’ve seen too much. In the first half we saw a team of Final Four power and depth. In the second half we saw why a team of such gifts had come within 20 minutes Thursday of missing the NCAA tournament altogether.
How can a team this potent turn pathetic in the time it takes an opponent to order up a full-court press? How can a team capable of building a 19-point lead — it was 16 at the break — against Maryland, which tied Duke atop the ACC standings, manage to waste almost every smidgen of it in six second-half minutes? How can you win a game in which you make more turnovers (25) than baskets (24)?
Somehow Tech did. It squandered all but two points of that massive lead, and nine times Maryland had a chance to tie or pull ahead. Nine times the Jackets buckled down and blunted the Terrapins, the last and most spectacular stop coming on Iman Shumpert’s strip/block of ACC player of the year Greivis Vasquez. And get this: Tech was actually trying to foul Vasquez on the play so as not to yield the tying 3-pointer.
And that’s Tech in a nutshell. (Emphasis on the “nutty” part.) Just when you think the Jackets have figured it out, they turn an inbounds pass into a lost art. Just when you’re certain they’ve blown the game completely, they make enough big plays to win. This isn’t the greatest team in the history of basketball, but it’s fast becoming the favorite of psychoanalysts.
The first half was simply magnificent: offensive precision matched with defensive resolution. Tech limited the Terps to six baskets in the first 16 minutes. Even when Vasquez or one of his mates would slice down the lane, nobody could finish. Tech’s big men blocked three shots and altered a half-dozen more.
Moe Miller, Zachery Peacock and Brian Oliver — three Jackets subs — scored 19 first-half points, only six fewer than the entire Terrapins roster. Gani Lawal and Derrick Favors had 15 rebounds in 20 minutes, more than the Maryland team. For the first time in … what, five years? … we could say we were watching Georgia Tech play beautiful basketball.
Then beauty took a hike. Tech turned the ball over nine times in the second half’s first five minutes. It would finish the astonishing half with 16 turnovers. What, Paul Hewitt was asked afterward, was his experience in winning games in which his team made 25 turnovers? “Not frequent,” he said. “But we’ve done it before.”
Lo and behold, it did it again. Try as it might, and it tried mightily, Tech never yielded the lead. “That was important,” Shumpert said. “We wanted to keep it at a two-possession game. We kept saying, ‘A stop and a rebound, a stop and a rebound.’ ”
There weren’t many baskets for either side down the stretch. The game was stuck at 62-59 for three minutes and 17 seconds, whereupon Miller threw up a shot that didn’t hit the rim but Favors jammed it home at the shot-clock buzzer. (On the night, Favors had 11 points, 11 rebounds, three blocks and eight turnovers.)
And then, finally, it was done. Tech had played its way into the ACC semifinals and surely now into the NCAA field, and it had survived not just the Terps but its schizo self. “It’s not going to be pretty all the time,” Hewitt said, and only half of this was. But so long as the Jackets keep extending the season, there’s always the chance they’ll eventually figure out how to inbound the ball.
If they ever manage that, the sky’s the limit for this gifted bunch. The sky, and maybe the ionosphere.