1. It was a hard-to-believe ending to a hard-to-believe regular season. Tech began the game already without forward Quinton Stephens, out with an abdominal strain suffered in the loss to Clemson Saturday. Then, about three minutes into the game, forward Marcus Georges-Hunt pulled up simply running up the court.
Tech’s leading scorer and the heart of the team returned to the bench and never went back in the game. That left the Jackets with nine scholarship players to contend with a team with no fewer than five McDonald’s All-Americans, and Tech was left without a scholarship small forward. Further, one of the nine, guard Josh Heath, was suffering from a viral infection. Another, freshman forward Abdoulaye Gueye, had played a total of 26 minutes this season.
Coach Brian Gregory gave meaningful minutes to Gueye and walk-on guard Brooks Doyle, not to mention freshman center Ben Lammers, who saw double-digit minutes for just the fourth time this season.
Forward Robert Sampson, who has played power forward the whole season, had to fill in at small forward.
“I didn’t know what I was really doing at the time,” he said, “but I kept on going through and picked it up a little bit.”
Without Georges-Hunt and with players not used to being on the court together, the team looked adrift on offense. The Jackets committed 11 turnovers in the first half – including five in a row at one point – and the Tar Heels scored 21 of its 25 points off turnovers in the first half. Tech gave up an 11-0 run to fall behind 27-11 at the 7:31 mark of the first half, and that was pretty much it.
“When you lose your leading scorer, I would say it kind of hurts your team,” center Demarco Cox said.
Maybe the one area, besides rebounding, where Tech has done well is injuries, or a lack of them, to be precise. Prior to Tuesday, of Tech’s top nine players, only one game had been missed due to injury – guard Travis Jorgenson being held out of the second game of the season as a precautionary measure as he recovered from his torn ACL. That is remarkable.
But the impact of injuries fell on Tech Tuesday like a pile of bricks.
Just a strange run of games. Out of 18 ACC games, Tech won its three games by an average of 15, lost 12 by an average of 3.8 points (three in overtime) and lost the other three by an average of 30.
2. Georges-Hunt was scheduled for an x-ray Wednesday, Gregory said. He did not sound hopeful about the possibility of Georges-Hunt being available Tuesday in the first round of the ACC tournament. For that matter, Stephens is no sure thing, either.
It’s a good thing that Tech’s regular season is finished before the weekend. The Jackets need the time to get on the practice court and figure out how they’re likely going to play without Georges-Hunt and possibly Stephens. Sampson played with big men Charles Mitchell and Cox on the court together for the first time this season, Cox and Sampson said.
“When I saw (Gregory) put Rob at the ‘3’ and me and Chuck at the 4 and 5, I was looking around, like, What’s really going on?” Cox said.
Tech’s opponent in the tournament is yet to be determined. After Tuesday’s games, it appears Tech will finish 14th or 15th, depending on the result of Virginia Tech’s Saturday game against Miami. If the Hokies win, the Jackets will finish 15th and play Wake Forest in the 11-14 game. (Syracuse will not play in the tournament as part of a self-imposed penalty stemming from an NCAA investigation.) If the Hokies lose, Tech will play Boston College in the 12-13 game.
The 11-14 winner will play the No. 5 seed Wednesday, which right now is North Carolina. The 12-13 winner will play the No. 6 seed, which right now is N.C. State.
If the Jackets finish in 15th, it would be the sixth time in school history that they finished last in the ACC (1980, 1981, 1982, 1997 and 2009).
By the way, I may have jinxed Georges-Hunt. I wrote something earlier this week saying that he was averaging 14 points/6 rebounds/2 assists in ACC play, something that only three ACC players prior to this season had done, dating back to the 1997-98 season. As a result of his injury Tuesday, he finished under six rebounds per game in ACC play by five rebounds.
3. On senior night, Cox finished well. He was about all Tech could count on offensively, finishing with 14 points on 7-for-11 shooting and eight rebounds. He worked nicely with Jorgenson on a number of screen and rolls.
Mitchell had 16 points on 6-for-10 shooting with eight rebounds but had four turnovers.
The Jackets were torched by Joel Berry II, who had 15 points off the bench to lead the Tar Heels. He was 3-for-5 from 3-point range, which was his best game of the season by far for 3-point shooting. Berry came into the game shooting 26.7 percent from 3-point range. North Carolina has had trouble playing consistently, and also had injury problems, but the Tar Heels have played two of their best games of the season against Tech and may have been their healthiest.