Ramblin’ through three more

The men’s basketball team’s hard-fought win over No. 6 Wake Forest two weeks ago seemed like it would help to curb its struggles in ACC play, but over the next three games the team found itself in familiar and frustrating territory. The Jackets fell to 1-9 in conference games with another trio of close losses, falling 62-58 at Florida State last Wednesday, dropping Sunday’s home matchup with Maryland 57-56, and coming up short against Virginia Tech by the score of 76-71.

All indications were that the win over Wake would give the Jackets a bit of momentum to carry into its next few games, and Head Coach Paul Hewitt said the team looked sharp as they prepared to take on the Seminoles.

“If you watched our practice the day before…or our game-day shoot-around, we [were] great. I was sure we would shoot the ball well against Florida State, coming off the win and having some confidence,” Hewitt said.

Florida State jumped ahead first, taking a 13-8 lead, but the Jackets closed the gap quickly. Starting with a three-point play by freshman guard Nick Foreman, Tech scored nine consecutive points to take a 24-17 lead with four minutes left. Senior guard Lewis Clinch hit a pair of jumpers, one from three-point range, and junior forward Zachery Peacock added two free throws to help Tech carry a 31-25 lead into halftime.

The second half saw the momentum shift repeatedly. Nine seconds in, Florida State guard Derwin Kitchen stole the ball from Tech freshman guard Iman Shumpert and notched an easy layup, starting a quick seven-point streak that put the Seminoles ahead. The Jackets immediately responded with a 10-3 run, with all the points coming from their forwards—Peacock, sophomore Gani Lawal, and senior Alade Aminu. Tech led 41-35 with 14 minutes left, but that was the largest lead they would have in the second half; after a scoreless spell, Florida State began to slowly chip away at the lead until a pair of free throws by center Solomon Alabi put them ahead by one. Shumpert then tied the game with a free throw, but Seminole guard Toney Douglas scored six straight points to give Florida State a 52-47 lead with three minutes left.

“You just have to keep the ball out of his hands the best you can,” Hewitt said of Douglas, who led Florida State in scoring.

The Jackets remained close until the end, but the late deficit forced them to foul, and the Seminoles went 9-10 on free throw attempts in the final two minutes to complete the 62-58 victory.

Peacock led the Jackets with 16 points, and Lawal had a double-double with 10 points and 11 rebounds. For the game, the Jackets topped the Seminoles in both field goal percentage (36.4 to 30.9) and free throw percentage (82.4 to 70.6). However, the latter figure was deceptive, as Florida State had 34 attempts from the line to Tech’s 17. Turnovers were also a problem for the Jackets once again; their count of 18 was better than it has been in most ACC games to this point, but Florida State committed only ten—including just two in the second half.

The Jackets did out-rebound the Seminoles 47-35, but Hewitt was disappointed with his team’s inside play. “[Our players] were coming back to the huddle complaining about fouls. I said, ‘Don’t play to the whistle.’ It’s something we were doing early in the year, and we went back to it for some reason early in the game,” Hewitt said.

Looking to rebound at home against a Maryland squad missing a starter in flu-ridden guard Adrian Bowie, the Jackets found themselves in a battle early on. Maryland guard Eric Hayes hit back-to-back three pointers to give his team an early 8-2 lead, but after the teams traded baskets, Tech responded swiftly. First, sophomore guard Moe Miller drained a three-pointer to cut the lead in half. Shumpert then sank an alley-oop dunk off a Clinch pass, hit a three-pointer of his own, and added a free throw to put Tech up 13-11. The half ended with a long-range shootout; the Terrapins drilled four open three-pointers to build a 29-20 lead, but Tech came back with a pair of threes from sophomore guard Lance Storrs and a third from Clinch to cut Maryland’s lead to 31-29 at halftime.

Tech played very aggressively in the first half, with the guards trying to force several dangerous passes inside to Lawal. In the second half, the Jackets were more conservative, and while they made a handful of reckless passes—most often on inbound passes—their inside game benefited from the change. The teams traded leads early in the half, and with Tech down 39-36, Peacock hit a game-tying three and Lawal threw down a dunk in traffic to put Tech ahead.

Guard Grievis Vasquez led the Terrapins’ comeback by scoring six straight points to propel them to the lead. Later, though, Vasquez made a crucial mistake when he fouled Shumpert on a three-point attempt; the freshman hit all three free throws to put Tech within one, at 55-54. With under a minute left, Tech was forced to foul, but Maryland’s Hayes and Sean Mosley both missed the front end of one-and-one tries. Tech could not take advantage of the opportunities, though. Peacock and Clinch both missed three-point attempts in that final minute, but Peacock did draw a foul and hit both shots to cut the lead to one point. With one last opportunity in the final seconds, Clinch drove in and met resistance, and his shot was off the mark. Shumpert grabbed the rebound and put up a desperation three that barely missed, so the Terrapins managed to hang on for the 57-56 victory.

“It’s tough, it’s very difficult, obviously. I’m still proud of the defensive effort the guys keep putting out every game…I’m not sure I’ve been around a team that plays so hard defensively and has nothing to show for it,” Hewitt said.

The Jackets were indeed strong defensively, holding the Terrapins to a 35.8 field goal percentage. However, Maryland grabbed 13 offensive rebounds and had a number of open three-point attempts, especially in the first half. Offensively, Tech had a balanced attack, with Shumpert’s 13 points leading the team. Turnovers were once again a problem, though, as the team’s more aggressive attack—while very effective at times—resulted in 24 turnovers, mostly due to some errant passes and Maryland steals.

Maryland made containing Lawal a priority, committing several defenders to him when he had the ball and forcing Tech to adjust. The strategy worked, as Lawal fell short of a double-double with 8 points and 14 rebounds. Hewitt, however, was content with the way Lawal handled the extra pressure.

“I thought he played a smart game. When he was close enough, before the doubles got to him, he made nice, strong moves to the basket. But he also kicked it out…he did a good job seeing the double team and identifying the open man,” Hewitt said.

Sitting at 1-8 in ACC play, the Jackets traveled to Blacksburg, Va. for their only game against Virginia Tech this season. The Jackets’ inside play carried the team early on, with Lawal, Aminu, and Peacock scoring 25 of the team’s 31 first-half points. However, Virginia Tech scored first and held the lead for the entire half; guard-forward A.D. Vassallo had eight points, four rebounds, and a steal in helping the Hokies build a 17-10 lead. The Jackets closed to within one point, but guard Malcolm Delaney and forward Jeff Allen keyed an 11-2 Virginia Tech run to end the half, and the Hokies led 41-31 at the break.

Virginia Tech’s lead grew to 13 points early in the second half, but the Jackets closed the gap to 50-47 on a 10-0 run powered by Miller and Lawal. The Hokies regained the momentum, though, and grew their lead to 11, thanks mainly to a stretch of 1:11 when Delaney went 6-6 on free throws. In the final minutes, the Jackets closed to within three points again, but it was too late, as Virginia Tech held on for the 76-71 victory. Lawal led the team with 23 points, eight rebounds, and three blocks, but even though the Jackets hit 17 of 20 free throws and committed just 14 turnovers—their lowest in any ACC game to date—it was not enough. The Hokies had 16 offensive rebounds and went 24-36 from the free throw line, including a 14-15 performance by Delaney.