Georgia Tech notches first ACC win, downs Notre Dame

The Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets logged their first ACC win of the season with a 74-69 victory over Notre Dame on Saturday.

Daniel Shirey/Daniel Shirey-USA TODAY Sports

In an under-the-radar but important game for the middle portion of the ACC pack, Georgia Tech held off Notre Dame, 74-69, in Atlanta. Here are three observations from a game Yellow Jackets head coach Brian Gregory called "a tremendous college basketball game":

1. Georgia Tech treading water in the ACC

… but it’s better than sinking quickly.

The Yellow Jackets aren’t going far in the top-heavy ACC, but at least they avoided the bottom of the pile — by improving to 1-2 in the league play, Georgia Tech forced traditional power North Carolina into sole possession of last place (0-3). After suffering blowout road losses to Maryland and Duke following the reportedly season-ending injury to big man Robert Carter Jr., the Yellow Jackets took it out on the similarly shorthanded Irish back in McCamish Pavilion.

Gregory turned to an eight-man rotation early Saturday afternoon, even with Carter’s injury and the struggles of standout guard Marcus Georges-Hunt (nine points, 2-of-10 shooting). The Yellow Jackets needed point guard Trae Golden’s best game of the season — even more so given Golden’s inefficiency against quality opponents this season — and a patchwork effort on the interior. It will be like this the remainder of the way. Gregory has to know that. His team does not look like the one projected to challenge for its first tourney birth since 2010, and has not looked like a hopeful since falling to Vanderbilt on Dec. 21.

A win is a win, though. It was the Yellow Jackets’ first game in friendly confines in nearly a month, and Gregory sounded grateful in his postgame comments for the reprieve.

"It was two teams trying to rediscover themselves with some guys out," Gregory said. "The one thing that is our biggest challenge is sustaining. Did we learn from (this game)? Does the next time that happens — do we go back to that and remember that and know that we can keep fighting through it? That consistency … that will always be a big step for us."

And with his top defensive presence out of commission, Georgia Tech’s calling card will assuredly take a hit. In the three ACC games without Carter, who underwent knee surgery on Tuesday, the Yellow Jackets have allowed at least one point per possession — well above the top-50 defensive marks the team enjoyed last season and early on in 2013. The ACC can be a brutal league, too. It houses some of the best offensive teams in the country, including Syracuse, Pittsburgh and Boston College still on the schedule, and Georgia Tech is not a defensive juggernaut.

Expect the road to get tougher.

Still, avoiding the cellar offers the team facets to improve upon: Golden looked more in control, Georges-Hunt is still an offensive weapon (though the offense should still run through him more) and big men Daniel Miller and Kammeon Holsey have yet another game of working together in the post under their belt. The Yellow Jackets will not be favored in too many games from here on out, but the bottom floor offers a much better view than the basement.

"Some really good things to build on, some things we gotta do better," Gregory said. "Like I always say, at this point you just want the guys, when they’re done, to know they left it all on the court. And they did that today."

2. Notre Dame has dealt with the loss of its best offensive player admirably, but problems are catching up

Beating the Duke Blue Devils at home on Jan. 4 is looking pretty fluky right about now — a combination of a letdown-threat Duke defense, Jabari Parker’s worst collegiate game and standout Irish performances from key role players — as back-to-back losses against N.C. State and Georgia Tech prove its never easy to lose a leading scorer midseason.

Jerian Grant’s dismissal for academic reasons on Dec. 23 has hurt Mike Brey’s team, it just took a little while for the damage to show. Through the first 12 games, Grant, a 6-foot-5 senior guard out of Bowie, Md., was the Irish’s lead guard and top scorer, averaging 19 points and 6.2 assists per game. His 132 offense rating and 32.7 percent assist rate were among the top marks nationally. Dropping that type of production off a four-loss team was never going to be easy.

Now, Notre Dame is a six-loss team and is staring down the barrel of a season that could all-too-quickly spiral toward a near-.500 mark for the first time since 2006.

There’s work to do if Brey is going to hit the 20-win mark for the eighth-consecutive campaign.

"We just have to be better getting out of the gate on the road and getting out of the gate in the second half," Brey said. "When you’re digging out of those holes, it’s exhausting. Sometimes you almost don’t deserve to win the game because of how you started the game and how you started the half."

3. Kammeon Holsey taking on bigger role

Back to the Carter injury.

Holsey’s career path in Atlanta has not followed the traditional track — underclassmen play fewer minutes; upperclassmen take stage as leading men — but he has an opportunity to close out his career as a starter and major contributor to what Gregory is trying to build. Multiple opposing coaches have been complimentary of Holsey in the aftermath, of his motor and of his rebounding ability, which often times go hand-in-hand. Georgia Tech will need that production in conference play.

Holsey started 43 games in his first two seasons at Georgia Tech, including Gregory’s inaugural campaign in 2011-12, but his playing time dropped dramatically in Gregory’s second season as then-new kids on the block Georges-Hunt, Carter and Chris Bolden, each a Gregory recruit in his freshman season, gobbled up available minutes. Holsey, a 6-foot-8 redshirt senior forward who has improved his offensive game and rebounding every season on campus, did not start a single game. The same held true before Carter’s injury.

But now the Sparta, Ga., product is back to the point where his name is called in pregame introductions.

The initial results against Maryland and Duke — eight points and seven rebounds in 45 minutes of play — were not promising, but he bounced back in McCamish on Saturday, logging a season-high 13 points and seven rebounds. That’s more like it.