With 14:25 left in their first-round ACC Tournament game, the Tech men’s basketball team seemed to be in good shape. The Jackets were up 27-24 on sixth-seeded Miami in a low-scoring defensive struggle, and with several of Miami’s key players shooting poorly from the field, Tech—the No. 11 seed in the 12-team tournament—had a solid chance at pulling off the upset.
It was then that everything went wrong.
After the Hurricanes cut the lead to one, Miami guard Rion Brown hit back-to-back three-pointers that keyed a virtually unstoppable Miami run on both ends of the floor. Over a span of nine minutes in the second half, the Hurricanes went on a 24-2 run as Tech’s offensive game fell silent and Miami’s top scoring options came to life. The Jackets were unable to muster a comeback and fell 54-36, watching Miami advance to the second round as their own season came to an end.
Junior point guard Mfon Udofia had 13 points and redshirt senior center Daniel Miller had 10 rebounds for the Jackets, who had a strong defensive effort but committed 20 turnovers as a team and scored the fewest points they have had in a game since 1961.
“In the first half defensively, we were as good as we have been all year long…The problem is, it’s hard to keep digging in on the defensive end when you don’t make any baskets,” said Head Coach Brian Gregory.
Miami’s run began soon after Tech had taken a three-point lead. Redshirt sophomore guard Brandon Reed scored four straight points for the Jackets, slashing into the lane for a layup with 15:01 left and then drawing a foul and hitting both free throws. The four-point sequence marked the fourth lead change of a close game and put Tech ahead 27-24 with 14:25 left.
Two free throws cut the lead to 27-26, and soon afterward the Hurricanes pulled ahead for good. Brown connected on a three-pointer in transition and, one possession later, hit another trey to give Miami a 32-27 lead.
Tech committed turnovers on four of its next five possessions, with the other ending after two missed three-point attempts, and Miami scored following each one. Miami point guard Shane Larkin and center Reggie Johnson each had four points in that span as the Hurricanes’ lead ballooned to 42-27 with 8:39 left.
It proved too much for the Jackets to overcome, as Tech was plagued by turnover issues and continued poor shooting in the second half. Tech committed 12 turnovers in the final 20 minutes and went 6-for-18 from the field.
“We didn’t shoot the ball well, and sometimes it takes a little bit of maturity when you’re not making some shots not to rush the next possession,” Gregory said.
“We stopped doing what got us in the game offensively. We weren’t getting the ball inside much and we weren’t being very patient on the offensive end,” Udofia said.
The first half had been ugly for both teams. Tech and Miami combined to shoot 14-for-51 for the field, completing 27.4 percent of their shot attempts.
Tech jumped out to a quick lead, scoring the first five points of the game on a three-pointer by Udofia and a midrange jumper by Miller. The game remained a fairly low-scoring affair throughout; when Miami took its first lead on a jumper by forward DeQuan Jones with 8:37 left, the score was 12-10 in favor of the Hurricanes.
Miami held the lead for most of the half but was unable to pull more than five points ahead. Down 17-12, the Jackets avoided letting Miami surge ahead when Udofia completed a three-point play off a turnover.
For a three minute span late in the opening half, there was no scoring as Tech, down 19-18, attempted to pull ahead. The Jackets finally did on a layup by sophomore wing forward Jason Morris with 31 seconds left, and they took that 20-19 lead into halftime.
The big story of the first half for Tech was the defense of Tech’s frontcourt players. Miller and Holsey were outsided by their Miami counterparts, Johnson and Kenny Kadji, but the Tech duo managed to hold their own and shut down the Hurricanes’ inside game. Johnson and Kadji were a combined 0-for-8 from the field in the opening half and had just seven rebounds in total. Miller in particular was sharp, forcing Johnson into bad shots and holding him without a field goal despite giving up more than 52 pounds to the Miami center.
“He’s really become an excellent defender for us. Johnson was 3-for-10 today, and one or two of them were when Daniel wasn’t guarding him,” Gregory said.
Seeking a spark on the offensive end, Miami Head Coach Jim Larranaga made a change in the lineup to start the second half, putting an extra shooter on the floor at the expense of a second ballhandler.
“We wanted to get another shooter out there. When Malcolm is at one wing and a guy like Trey McKinnie-Jones or Rion Brown is at the other wing, then whoever is at the point—Shane or Durand—[has] good targets who can shoot after the catch,” Larranaga said.
It took a few minutes, but eventually the change paid off in a big way for the Hurricanes. Johnson began to have success inside on the offensive end, and the freshman Larkin disrupted Tech’s offense and scored multiple baskets on fast breaks.
By and large, the Jackets simply could not hit their shots despite getting plenty of open chances. Morris had a team-high 12 shot attempts but only hit two of them, and he was 0-for-5 from three-point range. The team as a whole shot 31.8 percent for the game.
“We were going against a pretty good defensive team. We just struggled to make some shots, and when you end up missing some, it kind of magnifies some of your other flaws,” Gregory said.
Tech ended the season at 11-20 overall and 4-13 against ACC opponents (including Thursday’s game) in Gregory’s first season at the helm. The season was, in many regards, viewed as a rebuilding campaign, and despite the team’s weak record, the outlook was positive.
“It was a good season. It was a good rebuilding season, and I felt like we found out who we were and found our identity as Georgia Tech basketball,” Udofia said.