Fans who braved the elements on Monday night to go to the basketball game were rewarded with a hard-fought and well-deserved 63-52 victory over the Clemson Tigers. The win snapped a ten game losing streak to the Tigers (15-11, 7-7 ACC), who came to Atlanta fresh off a 21 point beat down of Virginia Tech and were 5-2 in their last seven games.
The Jackets (12-14, 3-11 ACC), who had lost four out of their last five and 11 of 13 since the New Year, were sparked by point guard Josh Heath, who led all scorers with a season high 14 points along with three assists, three steals, and was a perfect 6-for-6 from the free throw line.
Forward Demarco Cox put up 12 points for the second straight game and pulled down nine rebounds. Forward Marcus Georges-Hunt contributed 11 points and four rebounds, while forward Robert Sampson grabbed a season high ten rebounds to go with four points.
It was a welcome win for Tech, who has fallen victim to several extremely close losses this season. In the last month alone, the team has lost to N.C. State by one point in overtime, Virginia Tech, Florida State, and Boston College by two points each, and No. 4 Duke by only six points.
“It was a total team effort and the energy was great,” head coach Brian Gregory said after the game. “It was a bad night out there weather-wise, but we appreciate the fans and students that came out. It made for a nice evening, I can’t lie to you.”
The Jackets never trailed Clemson all game, opening with a 6-0 lead, and went into halftime with a 23-21 lead. After Clemson guard Damarcus Harrison tied the game at 32 with 12:14 left to play, Coach Gregory’s men went on a scoring run (keyed by great defense and getting out on the fast break) to take an 18 point lead with 4:56 remaining.
Heath made all four of his free throws to keep the game well out of reach in the final minute.
“I thought Josh played a heck of the game tonight,” Gregory said. “We need that out of him the rest of the year.”
On defense, Tech was able to hold Clemson to just 36 percent from the field and 27 percent from beyond the arc. Clemson forward and leading scorer Jared Blossomgame was held to just ten points, tied with backup guard Austin Ajukwa for the team lead. The home team, meanwhile, shot 46 percent from the floor (36 percent from deep) and had 15 assists, which tied a season-high.
“I thought we played as well defensively in the first half as we did all year,” Gregory said. “It was a challenge with a one day turnaround after a disappointing and heartbreaking loss on Saturday, but as our guys have done all year long, they got themselves off the mat and came out and fought with unbelievable intensity level and belief in each other.”
An important development to note was the absence of starting guard Chris Bolden from the lineup and even the bench. According to Gregory, Bolden has been suspended “indefinitely” for “not adhering to the standards of the program.” Last year former guard Solomon Poole was also suspended indefinitely and never played at Tech again.
“We have high expectations for our student-athletes and he hasn’t met those expectations,” Gregory said. Freshman guard Tadric Jackson (coincidentally Bolden’s cousin) got the start instead, finishing with just four points, but had five crucial assists and only one turnover in a career high 29 minutes of play.
“I give a lot of credit to Tadric, he came out and passed the ball
really well tonight,” Cox said. “He wasn’t selfish and was just thinking about winning the game. Before the game, he said to me ‘if you’re open I’m going give it to you’ and when I was open, he gave it to me. He was a man of his word tonight.”
Gregory backed up Cox’s endorsement of Jackson, saying that the freshman earned the start through his “great effort and unbelievable attitude” over the last two weeks.
“He’s got this infectious personality,” Gregory said. “You can tell he loves to play and loves to compete. He stepped up and accepted the challenge.”
Looking at the struggles to close games out this season, it surely has not been easy for the team to maintain a high intensity after so many heartbreaking losses. Cox cited the close bond of the team as the key to help them “keep their heads up and keep fighting as a team.”
“You don’t have a choice but to keep fighting and keep playing and doing what you’re taught,” Heath said. “We have a love for our coaching staff and the coaching staff has love for us, and that makes it easier to keep going out there and play your hardest.”
Coach Gregory was quick to insist that both the team and individual players have “drastically improved” in this last stretch, despite the lack of tangible results to back it up. He also gave credit to the players for their mental resilience through tough losses.
There are only four games left in the regular season, but they include two games against No. 15 North Carolina, a nationally-televised home game against No. 12 Louisville (Monday night on ESPN), and another game against Clemson on the road.
Tech will look to finish the year strong by building off Monday’s success on Saturday at UNC.