ATLANTA — The progression of a basketball program steeped in tradition, but largely bereft of veteran talent, usually encounters a reality check at some point in January.
For Georgia Tech, that experience occurred on Saturday, when unheralded Miami came into McCamish Pavilion and left with a 62-49 victory to open ACC play.
The Hurricanes, invisible in the national polls despite a No. 10 RPI ranking, were in control of this game from the outset, rolling to a 33-23 halftime lead and then using a 10-0 spurt in the second half to fuel their 10th victory of the season.
“Obviously, (this loss) was a little disappointing,” Georgia Tech coach Brian Gregory said after the game. “But give Miami credit: They are just better than us right now.”
Miami’s Rion Brown exploded for 22 points in Saturday’s win, which included 9-of-11 shooting from the field and four three-pointers made. Putting things into context, the junior guard had scored 63 total points in his previous 12 outings.
“The great thing about Rion, (his shooting slump) never impacted his attitude or his effort,” said Miami coach Jim Larranaga, who led George Mason to an improbable Final Four berth in 2006. “(Brown) was at this arena at 8 a.m. this morning, shooting for about an hour. He must have felt like he shot pretty well, because he was very confident coming into the game.
“His teammates found him. He got a wide-open three, an alley-oop dunk and then found himself open a third time,” Larranaga added. “Once you hit your first three (shots), you play with a great deal of confidence the rest of the way.”
Georgia Tech could relate to playing with some swagger. Before their ACC opener, the Jackets had surged to a 10-2 mark in nonconference play, with solid wins over Georgia and St. Mary’s and respectable losses to power-conference clubs like Cal and nationally ranked Illinois. But the formidable start didn’t attract much national buzz, partly based on the club’s middling overall schedule and 11-20 record (4-12 in ACC play) from the previous season.
In a way, Saturday’s defeat indicated that Georgia Tech might still be a year away from being a viable contender for an NCAA tourney berth. That aside, the club’s coming home slate of struggling foes (Virginia Tech, Wake Forest, Virginia, Florida State, Clemson) could wash away memories of a tough defeat to a quality opponent.
“Miami is just a good team. They’re big. They hurt us inside, they hurt us on the glass,” said Gregory, whose Jackets were out-rebounded 40-29.
From a Tech perspective, two poor sequences best captured the sluggish performance:
With Miami up 31-23 with under a minute left in the first half, guard Shane Larkin (son of baseball Hall of Famer Barry Larkin) bricked a three-pointer that caromed toward two Georgia Tech players, potentially triggering a four-man fast break on the other end. However, Hurricanes forward-center Kenny Kadji (11 points, 14 rebounds) snatched the loose ball from the pack and converted an easy layup to extend Miami’s lead to 10.
Later, with the ‘Canes clinging to a 40-32 lead, the aptly named Trey McKinney Jones connected on a long three-pointer. With the Jackets bringing the ball upcourt, Larkin then stole the ball and cruised for a layup, pushing his team’s advantage to 13 points. After that, everything was essentially academic to the final score.
The numbers/differentials for Georgia Tech weren’t pretty. In addition to posting a season-low point total, the club collected fewer rebounds, blocks and steals than Miami. The Jackets were also inferior from the field, making only 17 of 52 shots (32.7 percent). The Hurricanes were markedly better, connecting on nearly 42 percent of their shots.
Mfon Udofia, the Jackets’ lone senior, said he didn’t feel totally comfortable about his young team’s progress heading into the weekend. He understood — and tried to convey to teammates — that the ACC opener would be a drastically different experience from any of Tech’s November/December games.
“If you don’t bring it (every game) in this league, that’s what happens.”
Udofia and junior forward Kammeon Holsey led the Jackets with 10 points, combining for six field goals on 14 tries. Freshmen Marcus Georges-Hunt (seven points, six boards) and Robert Carter Jr. — the Yellow Jackets’ top scorers entering ACC competition — collectively had 14 points and 10 rebounds against the Hurricanes (10-3, 1-0).
Georgia Tech (10-3, 0-1) needed a victory to absorb the potential pratfalls ahead, with the club traveling to N.C. State, Duke and North Carolina in the next 18 days.