Every statistic and objective evaluation of Tuesday’s matchup against the University of North Carolina Tar Heels indicated the Tar Heels would crush the Jackets under their heel.
The No. 3-ranked Tar Heels lead the ACC with a 17-3 record and the conference’s best scoring offense at 83.1 points per game. They rank fourth in defensive efficiency and concede a mere 29.2% from three-point range. Senior guard RJ Davis leads the ACC in scoring with 21.2 points per game, while big man Armando Bacot enforces UNC’s defensive intensity with a career-high 2.0 blocks per game. Yet, on a Tuesday night in Atlanta under the bright lights of McCamish Pavilion, this 9-11 Jackets team emerged from the depths of the ACC and trapped the Tar Heels.
From tip-off, junior guard Miles Kelly looked ready for the challenge. He scored all of Tech’s first four points, drawing the foul on Bacot and sinking his first jump shot. Fellow junior guard Kowacie Reeves got going with a jumper of his own before Kelly hit a step-back three over junior Tar Heels forward Harrison Ingram. In less than two minutes of gameplay, the Jackets showed they were going to give the Tar Heels everything they had to offer.
After Tech got out to an 11-8 lead, the duo of Davis and Bacot spurred a 12-0 run for UNC. Luckily for the Jackets, senior guard Kyle Sturdivant broke up the run with a close-range jumper to make it 20-13. Although Ingram got his revenge with a massive dunk over Sturdivant, the Tech veteran found freshman forward Baye Ndongo in the corner, who drove in for a dunk of his own. Unfortunately, Ndongo left on the subsequent play with a head injury and did not return to the game. Sturdivant then hit a big three to shrink the lead to five, but the Tar Heels went on another 10-2 run to make it 33-22. With seven minutes left in the half, the game easily could have gotten away from the Jackets before half.
Fortunately, freshman guard Naithan George steadied the team. His 5.1 assists per game rank second in the ACC, and he played the facilitator role perfectly. After Kelly hit a turn-around three, George drove on UNC freshman guard Elliot Cadeau before whipping it to senior forward Tyzhaun Claude for the easy score.
On the next possession, he sent Cadeau stumbling before hitting the pull-up midrange jumper. Kelly then hit another three off of a George assist to get the lead down to four.
Tech then got a stop on the defensive end before George made his biggest assist of the half. He got it to freshman forward Ibrahima Sacko in the corner, and Sacko swished the corner three to draw the lead within one. The Jackets tied it up on George’s last-second layup to enter the half break tied at 37-37.
Tech’s defense tightened up in the last five minutes by not allowing a single UNC bucket. The combination of their defense, Kelly’s sensational shooting half and George’s playmaking made the first half some of the most impressive basketball Tech has played all season. Even though the team’s shooting from the field was a subpar 42.4% on 33 attempts, they hit on five of their thirteen three-point attempts for a respectable 38.5% from three-point range.
Neither team really pulled away at the start of the second half. Although senior forward Ebenezer Dowuona blocked an Ingram layup attempt, Tech and UNC essentially traded buckets for the first five minutes of the second half.
Interestingly, Sturdivant took on more of a facilitator role in the second half. He hit sophomore forward Tafara Gapare and Claude for consecutive layups while moving effectively off-ball. The senior guard cut the lead to one by getting open in the corner, receiving a pass from Kelly and burying the tough corner three.
From there, the Jackets started to get hot. Junior guard Deebo Coleman hit the pull-up three to give the Jackets a 54-52 lead while Claude punished the Tar Heels in the paint. Whether working off of Sturdivant or George, the veteran forward had his way inside and bodied Bacot for a layup to cap off a 14-point run for the Jackets. Tech’s defense did not look as sharp for much of the second half, which showed as the Tar Heels got several shots to fall inside. Now up by a razor-thin margin at 69-68, the Jackets needed a big shot to regain momentum.
Sturdivant delivered. He got around Davis, stopped on a dime and launched a deep three straight through the net to make it 72-68 in Tech’s favor. Still, UNC refused to relent. Ingram hit the open three with under two minutes to go. The crowd held its breath after sophomore guard Seth Trimble poked the ball away from Sturdivant on Tech’s next possession, but Ingram missed his second big three-point attempt, and the score held at 71-72, Tech.
Now with under a minute left, George took an ill-advised three point jumper that missed, and the ball ended up in RJ Davis’s hands. Davis took the ball on a fast-break and got the transition layup UNC desperately needed, stopping the hearts of the frantic McCamish crowd.
A UNC victory seemed all but assured — if not for George. The young, 6‘3 guard gathered himself at the top of the arc and sized up the 6‘11 Bacot. In the game’s pivotal moment, George called his number. He crossed the ball over and forced Bacot to give up inside leverage and a clear path to the basket.
From there, the Tech point guard tore through the paint, rose into the air with Bacot right behind him and banked the game-winning layup off the glass with his left hand.
McCamish exploded in excitement, but Davis grabbed the ball from Bacot at the top of the key. He drove into the chest of Dowuona and threw a shot that fell short of the basket and sealed the Tech victory, 74-73.
There was a lot of criticism surrounding the lack of a defensive foul on Dowuona, but the game had no business being this close.
Tech’s bench scored 39 points to UNC’s 14 while making 15 of their 17 free throws. The Jackets’ defense held UNC to a miserable 36.4% from the field and 28.6% from three-point range. Missing eight of their 17 free throws and leaning entirely on Davis for offensive production sealed the Tar Heels’ fate long before the clock hit triple zeroes.
It is difficult to overstate what a win like this means. This is the Jackets’ third win over a top-25 win and first Jackets win over a team ranked in the top three since 2005. Rookie head coach Damon Stoudamire has already eked wins over both Duke and North Carolina. Getting this win without Ndongo, the team’s best player, speaks to the tremendous fortitude of this young team.
Even though they lack consistency, the team proved their ceiling is among the best in the conference. Tech heads on the road to take on the NC State Wolfpack at PNC Arena on Saturday, Sept 3.