Jackets start conference play at 1-1

The Jackets entered conference play on Jan. 6, facing the Duke Blue Devils at Philips Arena before traveling to Raleigh, N.C. on Jan. 11 to face N.C. State. The Jackets split the conference games to finish with an 8-8 record overall and a 1-1 conference record.

Just under two years after upsetting No. 5 Duke at Alexander Memorial Coliseum, the Tech basketball team was not able replicate the feat against the No. 3 ranked Blue Devils at Philips arena, in a 81-74 defeat. Playing only their second game in the temporary home arena, Tech fell to 7-8 on the season and 0-1 in conference play. Led by junior forward Ryan Kelly’s 21 points, including eight vital free throws in the final 30 seconds of the game, Duke was able to overcome a mid-game push by the Jackets to win the game 81-74.

Trailing by as many as 18 in the first half, the Jackets were able to cut to lead to five points at the half thanks to tenacious activity on the boards and highlighted by sophomore guard Jason Morris’ alley-oop dunk from junior guard Pierre Jordan. The Jackets were paced by junior guard Glen Rice Jr.’s career-high tying 28 points and eight rebounds, while junior guard Mfon Udofia had the most efficient game of his career, shooting 67 percent en route to 19 points, four assists and four rebounds.

Following three straight losses, Tech was looking to hand Duke its first back-to-back losses since Feb. 2009. A lineup change, however, seemed to spark the Blue Devils from the get-go. Starting freshman point guard Quinn Cook instead of sophomore point guard Tyler Thornton, and reverting back to senior forward Miles Plumlee for the start resulted in the Blue Devils shooting nearly 71 percent from the floor until the 8:07 mark of the first half.

The Jackets were able to hold Duke’s freshman point guard Austin Rivers to seven points below his team-high average and force him to only hit three of his ten shots from the field. The Jackets’ solid defensive effort included six steals, two blocks, and nine Blue Devil turnovers. Morris joined Rice Jr. and Udofia as the only Jackets in double figures with 11 points.

Tech made a concerted effort early to try and attack Duke’s frontline, often setting up sophomore center Daniel Miller on the block. Although shooting only three for eight for the game, Miller showed up on the defensive end recording four steals and two blocks, amidst foul trouble all afternoon.

The Jackets also allowed freshman forward Julian Royal a large taste of conference play, giving him 25 minutes off the bench. It was a loss that showed a lot of fight and effort, something the Jackets looked to build upon in their upcoming conference slate.

The Jackets then traveled to Raleigh N.C. on Jan. 11, to face a tough N.C. State squad that was among the leaders in the country on offense.  The third highest scoring team in the ACC was held to 29 first half points and 71 for the game as the Jackets dominated the N.C. State Wolfpack 82-71 in Raleigh on Wednesday night.

It was another solid shooting night for Rice whose 13 first half points and 22 for the game, along with five rebounds, paced the Jackets to end their four-game losing skid.

Tech was beaten early on the boards, which allowed Sophomore forward C.J. Leslie and the Wolfpack build a 24-19 lead with 7:29 remaining in the first half. However, Tech would come back from the slow start on Rice’s hot shooting and rebounding coupled with the strong play of Udofia and sophomore guard Brandon Reed.

The guard play was the key to a 15-1 run over the final five minutes of the first half that put the game out of hand. The 40-29 halftime lead was a testament to Tech’s efforts on the defensive end, holding a fastbreak-minded Wolfpack team to only a couple of buckets on the break and turning the game into a much more favorable half-court style. The Jackets also held Travis Wood, who was shooting 46 percent from beyond the arc this season, to 1-4 shooting in the first half and 2-9 for the game.

Tech, coming into the game as the worst three point shooting team in the ACC, made six first half threes and finished with nine in the game. The total far surpassed their season average and amounted to almost one-seventh of their 70 total three’s all year.

Wolfpack junior forward Richard Howell paced N.C. State with 15 points.

In the end, however, it was the Jackets’ ability to control the pace of the game that enabled them to come away with the victory. Sophomore forward Kammeon Holsey helped close the game, finishing with four offensive rebounds and eight total boards, eliminating any hope of an N.C. State comeback.

In the first few minutes of the second half, it looked like N.C. State would make a game of it, cutting the lead down to five points. However, a fourth foul on C.J. Leslie and a scoring run by Rice expanded the lead back out to an insurmountable amount. Four Jackets joined Rice in double figures with Udofia scoring 17 with three assists, Reed contributing 12, Morris adding 10, and Miller scoring 10 with four blocks.

Tech will try to continue their momentum on the road at the Comcast Center in College Park, Md. when they face the Maryland Terrapins on Sunday, Jan. 15.