In the second half, San Diego State gave Tech as much trouble defensively as anyone has all season, I think, befitting a team that came into the game No. 3 in the country in defensive efficiency by the Pomeroy ratings. Wednesday night, it was rare that the Jackets were able to get an open look at the basket from anywhere.
It was a considerable departure from the confident, poised bunch that tore apart Houston and South Carolina in the first two NIT games. This was a clear step up the ladder.
“They’re as good (defensively) as just about anybody that we’ve played,” coach Brian Gregory told media after the game.
In the second half, Tech shot 9-for-27 from the field. Despite the slew of misses, the Jackets only had three offensive rebounds. Guards Adam Smith and Marcus Georges-Hunt were a combined 4-for-15 after halftime.
Aztecs forward Winston Shepard did a good job, relatively speaking, of not letting Georges-Hunt get many uncontested shots and also challenging shots on drives that Georges-Hunt usually makes. He was 6-for-14 for a team-high 18 points.
San Diego State guard Dakarai Allen made it tough on Smith, smothering him and helping cause a 3-for-11 effort from the field, including 0-for-4 from 3-point range. It was only the second time all season that he didn’t make a single 3-pointer.
Just as important as the 0 in the 0-for-4 was the 4, which tied for his season low for 3-point attempts. Allen just didn’t give Smith many opportunities to take shots, and Smith typically isn’t shy about taking (and making) contested shots. He came into the game averaging 7.6 3-point attempts per game and had put up 10 against South Carolina.
“Credit goes to him,” Smith said. “He’s a great defender – he’s long, he’s athletic. Most of the shots that I took, even the few that I made, he was there to contest it. It was a team effort on their part. Once we got past one guy, they had another defender there.”
San Diego State’s control of the glass on both ends was perhaps the most decisive factor. Tech’s seven offensive rebounds was tied for the second-lowest total of the season and was 6.2 below the team’s season average. Meanwhile, San Diego State had 12. The Aztecs enjoyed a 17-5 advantage on second-chance points, Tech’s widest negative margin of the season.
San Diego State did to Tech what the Jackets typically do to most teams, attack the glass ferociously and win with effort and physicality.
“I thought the difference in the game was the second-chance points and their ability – or our inability – to run some of our offense that we normally run,” Gregory said. “Our offense kind of let us down a little bit in the second half, to their credit.”
It’s not the sort of admission that I’ve heard Gregory make very often this season.
It didn’t decide the game, but the breaks and bounces seemed to go San Diego State’s way, much in the same way that they went for Tech against South Carolina on Monday. It seemed a number of potential rebounds bounced just beyond the grasp of Tech players, and that chance plays tended to favor San Diego State.
Two cases in point: With the score 48-44 and the Jackets struggling to stay in it, forward Angelo Chol took a baseline jumper and missed. Tech had defenders at the basket ready to rebound, but the ball bounced off the rim almost directly to forward Zylan Cheatham, who, if memory serves, wasn’t really even in position to rebound. But Cheatham caught it and then returned the ball back to Chol, who had cut to the basket and had an uncontested layup for a 50-44 lead.
Tech was never close as four points for the rest of the night.
Tech was down 66-54 with under 1:30 to play and appeared to have forced a stop that was keeping its slim hopes for a comeback alive. With the shot clock running down for the Aztecs, the ball found forward Malik Pope well beyond the 3-point arc. Pope is actually a pretty decent 3-point shooter (38 percent for the season going into the game), but his desperation shot – which was challenged pretty well – found the bottom of the basket. It was a dagger basket.
That said, what seem like breaks are often the product of playing with more effort. The Aztecs seemed to play with more energy, buoyed by a sellout crowd (the 73rd in the past 74 games) and the fact that the visiting team was playing 48 hours after playing a game 2,200 miles away.
“I’ve always said, sometimes this tournament is harder than the NCAA tournament for that reason,” Gregory said. “The last two teams we played are a combined 30-6 at home, and then you’ve got to make that trip, the Monday-Wednesday night trip. We tried to do everything we could to stay fresh but still be well prepared, but it’s a challenge.”
Played well in defeat
Tech forward Charles Mitchell continued his strong run of play in the NIT with 12 points and 12 rebounds for his 16th double-double of the season. He was the most productive player for the Jackets and showed a little offensive flair, as he had against South Carolina, scoring on a reverse and a drive to the basket. He banged for five of Tech’s seven offensive rebounds and was completely spent at the end of the game. His 30 minutes were about five more than his season average.
Guard Josh Heath gave 20 minutes off the bench after playing 23 against South Carolina, two of his longer runs after being moved to the bench near the start of the ACC season. He was effective and a little more aggressive than usual. Guard Tadric Jackson also gave 13 good minutes, scoring six points and not turning the ball over.
End of the road
The loss brought a memorable run to an end. Six weeks ago, the team was 12-11. It was 2-8 in ACC play. The Jackets’ inability to win close games seemed, once again, irreversible. The thought of Tech playing in any postseason tournament was entirely laughable.
To the credit of the team, Gregory and his staff, the resolve and optimism never waned. The Jackets went 9-4 the rest of the way, coming back to beat Notre Dame, Clemson (twice) and Pittsburgh in memorable fashion before playing their best in wins over Houston and South Carolina in the NIT.
Tech’s 21 wins is more than all but two of the past 20 teams at Tech have earned. Tech’s 8-10 record in the ACC – only four Tech teams have done better in the same 20-year span – looks even more impressive considering that, of the 10 losses, five were to teams that are in the Sweet 16, another two were to Louisville (which would have been in the tournament but withdrew from postseason play) and an eighth was to another NCAA tournament team (Pittsburgh).
Gregory paid tribute to the team’s five seniors for their willingness to persevere through a rebuilding process and even to join it in transferring.
“To me, that just shows what type of men those guys are, and the character, the core values that they have,” Gregory said. “In this day and age, that’s more remarkable than any won or loss record, in my opinion.”