Jackets split big ACC matchups

Junior guard Miles Kelly drives to the basket against Cavaliers sophomore guard Ryan Dunn. Kelly was critical in the win against Clemson as his drives to the rim forced the defense to foul. // Photo courtesy of Tyler Parker Student Publication

Jackets stun Clemson, fall to UVA

Reeling from a disappointing loss to the Duke Blue Devils, the Jackets needed to rebound quickly before their road trip to Littlejohn Coliseum in Clemson, S.C., to face the Clemson Tigers. They rebounded with what can only be described as the Naithan George game.

Last season, the Tigers finished fourth in the Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC). Although they ended the 2022-23 season in a slump, their 13-5 record is belied by a solid 7-2 record at home that indicates their home court advantage. 

The first half showed the Jackets came ready. They attempted 20 threes in the first half — the same amount as they did in the entirety of the Duke game — and hit a respectable seven of their attempts. After freshman forward Baye Ndongo got the Jackets on the board with a free throw, Clemson went on a 7-0 run before junior guard Kowacie Reeves hit a three-pointer to make it 7-4, Clemson. 

From then on, the Jackets continued to stymie Clemson’s runs but struggled to penetrate the paint for most of the half. Although Tech shot poorly from the field, going 11-31 for a combined 36% as a team, they played great perimeter defense, and Clemson shot an awful 22% from three-point range in the half. 

Unfortunately, the Tigers also had a 41% percentage from the field, buoyed by a stellar 13-point, nine-rebound half from Clemson senior center PJ Hall. Freshman guard Naithan George led the Jackets in scoring with led the Jackets in scoring with eight points and two assists. His play and poor interior defense from Clemson late in the half allowed the Jackets to take a 30-32 deficit into halftime.

If the beginning of the first half was a positive sign for Tech, the start of the second half was more worrying. After junior guard Miles Kelly hit a jumper to even the score at 32, the Clemson duo of Hall and senior guard Chase Hunter gave the Tigers a 44-36 lead with fifteen minutes left. Although the Jackets did not quit and even took the lead on a few occasions, they seemed bothered by the Tigers’ size. They struggled on the boards, finishing the game with 33 rebounds to Clemson’s 45. With the game winding down to a 68-59 Clemson lead at the 1:43 mark, it seemed like a sure loss for the Jackets.

However, senior guard Kyle Sturdivant hit all three of his free throws to cut the lead to six. After a Tech timeout, George drew the defender to the corner before dishing the ball out to Reeves for a massive three-pointer. Down three with only 52 seconds left, Clemson hit two free throws to make it a five-point game. 

Now with 22 seconds left, Naithan George stepped up and delivered. The true freshman guard swished a three in his defender’s face before resetting the ball on the next possession, hesitating and nailing the three-pointer to send the game to overtime.

Tech survived the first overtime period by hitting their free throws and doing just enough to hang with Clemson. Ndongo and senior forward Tyzhaun Claude made all their free throws down the stretch. Otherwise, the Jackets’ offense was listless in the first OT period — they missed all three attempts from deep and hit only four of their ten attempts from the field. 

Clemson tied it up at 82-all with 23 seconds left in the period, so the game would be decided in a second overtime period. Tech needed to step it up in the final frame.

Fortunately, they did exactly that by going four of five from the field and three of four from the charity stripe. Miles Kelly started the quarter aggressively, converting his layups and getting rewarded with free throws. Kelly put the Jackets up 87-86 before George came alive in the clutch once again. 

With under 90 seconds to go, George buried the fadeaway jumper to extend the lead to three. He then nailed the three-pointer over his defender to put Tech up 92-88. Sturdivant scored on a free throw to make it 93-90 before Clemson’s PJ Hall missed the game-winner to seal the Tech victory. George’s career night— 20 pts, six assists — was highlighted by 19 pts from Sturdivant, an efficient 15 from Reeves and a Baye Ndongo double-double with 11 pts and 10 rebounds. In short, it was one of the team’s best wins of the year.

Returning home to McCamish Pavilion after the big win, the Jackets needed to continue their performance against a strong University of Virginia Cavaliers team. The Cavaliers have  the second-best scoring defense in the nation, but Tech actually shot a fantastic 41.67% from three-point range and got 11 points from their bench. 

They built  a 22-11 lead on a George jumper, but Virginia cut the deficit to three after some poor defense from Tech. Cavaliers sophomore guard Isaac McKneely hit the tying three to make it 29 apiece before UVA hit their next two jumpers to take a four-point lead into halftime. Although they did not end the half well, this was still a winnable game for the Jackets.

Simply put, the team faltered in the second half. Virginia outclassed Tech  in points off turnovers, points in the paint and second-chance points. All of those indicate the Jackets’ play became sloppy and undisciplined. 

The Cavaliers expanded the lead to 38-29 and maintained a commanding lead for the rest of the game. Tech made it interesting with a late pair of George free throws and a Ndongo jumper to cut the lead to six, but the Jackets’ defense could not keep up with the Virginia offense. The Cavs shot a blistering 43% from three in the second half and 50% from the field to close the Jackets out, 75-66.

While the loss to Virginia was disappointing, the team deserves major credit for battling through a Clemson game they easily could have dropped. 

The Jackets are still a young team, and games like Clemson will play a critical role in building team culture.

The Jackets play the Panthers at McCamish on Tuesday, Jan. 23, before heading to Blacksburg to play the Virginia Tech Hokies on Saturday, Jan. 27.