ATLANTA — In the past year, it has seemed easy to nickname Alexander Memorial Coliseum the “Bulldog Palace.”
Winners of their past three games on their rival Georgia Tech’s home floor, the Georgia Bulldogs appeared to own the arena last year after beating three straight SEC teams to unexpectedly earn an SEC title in the conference tournament last March. Moved from the Georgia Dome because of a downtown Atlanta tornado, the Bulldogs became cozy guests at the Coliseum, and early Tuesday night, it appeared they were settling in just nicely once again.
But by the end of Tuesday night’s regular-season road contest against the host Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets, the Bulldogs were rendered back to visitors’ status once again, as the Yellow Jackets came from behind to beat Georgia 67-62 in an emotionally charged non-conference thriller.
“It was big for a lot of reasons,” Georgia Tech head coach Paul Hewitt said his team’s win. “Obviously with it being a rivalry game, we also were focusing on protecting our home court. We’ve lost some games here that were just crushing games in terms of how we lost them. We played well enough to win them, but whether it’s free throws or turnovers down the stretch, they were things that — I don’t want to say we have a young team — but they were things where we do have a freshman point guard and a sophomore center who we depend on a lot.
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“We’ve just had some really tough losses, and we’ve got to find a way to get some of those back. Perhaps (Tuesday) was a way to get some of that back.”
Overcoming a 10-point halftime deficit, the Yellow Jackets fought back in the second half to win the game after a series of clutch dunks, turnover recoveries and successful foul shots got the more than 8,300 in attendance loudly cheering Georgia Tech to the victory.
After missing a slew of layups, 3-pointers and free throws throughout the first half, the loud second-half crowd was just what the Yellow Jackets (9-5) wanted to see.
“That’s how we want to play; we’re a run-and-gun team,” Georgia Tech guard Lewis Clinch said. “When we get that momentum and get our crowd into it, we do our best to make those plays to keep the crowd into it. Because as you saw, at the end of that first half, the crowd was kind of dead, and things were slowing down a little bit. So that’s why we kept chipping away, and we knew, once we got it to where we wanted it — that two-point game where we could go up by one, or go up by two — we knew that we would be good because we play off that momentum. That’s who we are; we’re a run-and-gun team, and we need to play off our crowd.”
With screaming fans erupting at the end of every key play down the stretch, Georgia (9-6) began to lose some of the momentum it had built up to close the opening half. Beginning to look more fatigued than it had been early on, Georgia became the victim of vigorous second-half pressure from the Yellow Jackets.
“They had shaky ballhandlers, and Coach Hewitt knew that they didn’t want to be pressured, so we came back and established that early (in the second half) and fought back into it,” Clinch said.
Bulldogs guard Zac Swansey said he and his teammates knew the aggressive defensive tactic was coming, but they just couldn’t find a way to respond to it.
“We were prepared for it, we just had a lapse there for most of the second half,” Swansey said.
As its offense tried to keep up with the Yellow Jackets’ defensive tactic, Georgia’s fatigue showed, and the Yellow Jackets dominated the paint. Outleaping and outrebounding the Bulldogs in the final minutes of the game, Georgia Tech secured 27 second-half rebounds opposed to Georgia’s 14. The Yellow Jackets also outscored the Bulldogs 12-4 in second chance points in the second half, and swatted a season-high eight Georgia shot attempts.
Providing the biggest emotional lift on those press packages was forward Zachery Peacock, who fueled Georgia Tech’s late-game energy by blocking a two-handed dunk by Bulldogs forward Jeremy Price with 6:19 left in the game. On the ensuing fast break, Clinch was fouled, sinking one of his foul shots and bringing Georgia Tech to within one point of just its second lead of the game. A Bulldogs possession later, near Georgia’s bench, Peacock stripped the ball from a guard to force another Georgia Tech fast break. Seconds later, he completed a layup to give the Yellow Jackets a 54-53 lead.
“We did a good job of getting in position to get baskets many times only to have (Georgia Tech) make plays to block shots that were literally in the rim — I mean dunks and layups,” Georgia head coach Dennis Felton said. “And if we don’t get so many of those blocked after doing a good job of attacking and getting it to the rim, then the whole texture of the game is different. But there is no doubt that they fought really hard with their pressing.”