New contributors add spice to Ga. Tech’s 4-year hold over Georgia
ATLANTA — It’s hard to quantify the impact of a random season-opening win in mid-November, relative to a marathon campaign in college hoops.
It’s also hard to gauge the immediate relevance of a single victory over a heated rival, especially when holding home court.
But in the specific case of Georgia Tech hoops, there’s nothing oblique, accidental or even flukish about upending Georgia for a fourth consecutive year — capped by Friday’s 80-73 win at McCamish Pavilion.
With the home triumph — which served as the regular-season opener for both clubs — the Yellow Jackets were emboldened on two fronts:
**Tech (16-17 overall, 6-12 in ACC last season) gained an immediate shot of confidence, in terms of jumping out in front and protecting the lead throughout the night.
**The Yellow Jackets have more clarity on how this orchestrated mish-mash of baby-faced freshmen, established veterans and experienced newcomers would converge on the big stage — with only the benefit of a handful of practices and one exhibition victory (Clayton State) preceding the opener.
Nerve-racking times, for sure, but using showbiz vernacular, there was nothing soft about this opener.
"In a game like this, you always worry there will be a thousand mistakes made," said Georgia Tech coach Brian Gregory in the postgame media scrum. "But we fought through (the mistakes) … and I’m proud of our guys."
Gregory marveled in his players’ effort, intensity and aggressiveness against the Bulldogs, claiming categorical victories with field-goal shooting, three-point efficiency and rebounding (offensive/defensive).
He was also dazzled by the opening-day transformation of sophomore Quinton Stephens, whose remarkable shooting night (7 of 11 from the field) included six triples and resulted in a team/career-high of 22 points.
"We’ve got to forget about Quinton last year," said Gregory to the media, referring to a then-callow freshman. "It’s a whole new year. … we got him open and he made the shots."
How hot was this mask-wearing bandit? With six minutes to go in the second half and Tech clinging to a six-point lead, Stephens — who connected on only 15 three-pointers last season — enjoyed a sequence of back-to-back triples … with the traditional swish on the first and an unconventional bank (from 23 feet) on the second successful attempt.
"I guess it was one of those nights when things were falling for me," said Stephens, whose previous career-best entailed 13 points against North Carolina State last January. "I had the opportunity for open shots, and I took ’em."
The Stephens rainbows quickly stretched the Jackets’ lead to 10 — a cushion that would be essential in the waning moments, as the Bulldogs sliced the deficit to three points with 34 seconds left (J.J. Frazier layup), before a series of Tech free throws (including four from Stephens) iced the game.
"Those are the breaks you get," lamented Georgia coach Mark Fox, regarding Stephens’ fortuitous bank (with 5:23 left in the second half) and overall shooting prowess.
In his own postgame address, Fox — who signed a two-year contract extension in April — didn’t have the look of a crestfallen coach in March. Rather, he exudes patience for how Georgia’s season would evolve in the coming months.
The loss stemmed from "our inability to do something, aside from settling for the three-point shot early on," said Fox, whose Bulldogs drained only 5 of 20 shots from beyond the arc. … "It took us a long time to calm down. Give Georgia Tech credit … their defense was good — they’re going to have a good team."
Fox then added: "Statistically, the frontline, everybody scored," when asked if Georgia Tech’s size hindered his team’s offensive strategy. "We wanted to go inside, we just waited a little too long to do it."
As for the notion of opening on a down note, while extending the Tech losing streak to four years, Fox offered a blunt, but optimistic response.
"I’m confident in my team," said Fox, relishing the opportunity to play Colorado, Kansas State, Seton Hall, Mercer and Final Four contender Gonzaga in the coming weeks. "I’m not going to panic because we lost the game — we got outplayed."
Introductions Aren’t Necessary
Maryland transfer Charles Mitchell (20 points, nine rebounds, one block vs. Georgia), would never be confused with the lanky Stephens when paired together on the revampedTech frontline.
At 6-foot-8 and 269 pounds, Mitchell cuts a hulking figure when decked out in blue-and-gold warmups before the game; and after the opening tipoff, that aggressiveness carries over to just about every bruising possession — save one from Friday.
"Charles is a passsionate, energetic player, and I love those guys — he loves playing," said a relaxed Gregory about the junior big man. "But if he gets a dunk" — which occurred midway through the first half — "he’s got to get back" on defense.
It was a well-earned moment of levity for Gregory, who surely understands the necessity of compiling a winning record in his fourth season at the helm, coinciding with a legitimate run at earning an NCAA tournament invite.
Gregory also grasps the enormity of taking down a fierce in-state rival four consecutive times, even if he’s somewhat reluctant to encapsulate that feeling into a convenient media sound bite.
"(Beating Georgia) is an important game for us, for our program, for our guys," said Gregory, who enjoyed substantial success at Dayton before relocating to Atlanta four years ago. "I don’t build it up too much for our players … but it’s important.
"It’s one night of the year, playing this (rivalry) game takes on a little extra special meaning," says Gregory, while including the players, coaches, fans and former Tech stars into that experience.
He then flashed a keen smile before saying, "For a year, we get to say whatever we want to say."