ATLANTA — As has become the custom in this series’ most recent games, the action Sunday night at Georgia Tech’s Alexander Memorial Coliseum went down to the wire, with the winner decided following some late-game heroics.
And just like the previous three times Georgia Tech and Florida State had met, it was the Seminoles who emerged victorious, walking out with a 66-59 overtime win over the 22nd-ranked Yellow Jackets.
The game was the ACC opener for both teams.
“Georgia Tech brought the best out of our players,” Florida State head coach Leonard Hamilton said. “(The game) was a direct reflection of the respect we have for Georgia Tech as far as a team and the way they play. And when you watch their films, that motivates you in itself.”
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Florida State (10-2, 1-0 ACC) was also motivated to play well against the Yellow Jackets the three previous times the teams met as it picked up wins in those games, as well. That includes the Seminoles’ two-point win last March in the quarterfinals of the ACC tournament that ended a Georgia Tech season in which the Yellow Jackets had just two conference wins. The other two games were decided by a combined six points.
“It’s tough,” Georgia Tech freshman guard Mfon Udofia said of playing in the ACC. “Every game is going to be down to the wire. Every team is going to fight hard, from the last place team, to the first place team in the ACC.”
The word “fight” could be an understatement.
With elbows swinging, arms flailing and bodies diving toward the basket, Sunday night’s game was as physical and defensive-oriented a game as the Yellow Jackets (8-2, 0-1) have played all year.
“It was a dogfight out there,” said Udofia, a metro Atlanta native. “I grew up in the South, so I used to watch ACC basketball growing up. But I’m out there, and it’s a dogfight. Every possession is a key possession for the game.”
In a game dictated by how well each team’s forwards matched up with the other, in the post was where the action was the most intense.
Facing Florida State’s 7-foot-1 center and 6-9 forwards was so rough that the Yellow Jackets’ big men — Gani Lawal and Derrick Favors — were held to a combined 12 points. With the referees seeming to take a hands off approach to some of the physicality, the two Yellow Jackets forwards were held to just one trip to the free-throw line.
“The refs are going to call what they’re going to call. We just have to go out there and play hard,” Lawal said.
On one second-half exchange in particular, Lawal appeared to get pushed out of a play and onto the ground as he was boxing out with Solomon Alabi, Florida State’s center. As the ball ended up in Alabi’s hands with a wide open lane to the basket, Lawal was forced to foul him to prevent a dunk. Alabi missed both free throws.
Although Florida State’s defense clamped down on Georgia Tech to hold the Yellow Jackets to a 32.9 percent showing from the field — their lowest of the season — Georgia Tech’s own defense responded with an equally strong showing. The Seminoles took a 24 percent effort from the field into halftime along with a five-point lead.
Overcoming an eight-point second-half deficit, the Yellow Jackets stormed back in the final 20 minutes, as a scoring flurry from senior Zachery Peacock kept them in the game.
“Late in the game, I thought we did the things we needed to do,” Georgia Tech head coach Paul Hewitt said. “We had finally found a rhythm.”
During one stretch halfway through the second half, Peacock drained three consecutive shots, including a 3-pointer that pulled the Yellow Jackets to within one and a runner in the lane that gave them the lead 50 seconds later.
“I wouldn’t say I was doing anything out of the regular that I do on the court,” Peacock said. “Coach (Hewitt) says shoot when you’re open. If their (a defender’s) hand is down, just shoot.”
In addition to his uncontested nine-point romp, the forward made one of the night’s biggest shots when he sank an 18-foot jumper near the top of the key with 29 seconds remaining in regulation. The score tied the game at 54 and took the game into overtime.
“We had a tough time shooting the ball in the first half, but we did a better job shooing in the second half,” Hewitt said. “We shot early and quick in the first half. Second half, we did a better job moving the ball around and getting some open shots.”
Moments into the overtime, Peacock — who made his return after missing Georgia Tech’s last game with a bruised knee — drained a 3-pointer to give the Yellow Jackets a quick three-point lead.
But the lead did not hold, and the Seminoles would use their own heroics to eventually take the final lead before the Yellow Jackets were forced to begin fouling.
“If you are not aggressive and physical with Georgia Tech, then they’ll send you home with your hat in your hands,” Hamilton said.
At halftime, Georgia Tech held a ceremony to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the program’s dream 1960 season.
That year, the Yellow Jackets reached the NCAA tournament for the first time in school history with consensus All-America selection Roger Kaiser as team captain. After a first-round victory over Ohio, the Yellow Jackets fell in the next round to eventual national champion Ohio State to finish the season 22-6.
As part of the festivities, with his rich baritone voice, Josh Powell, another member of the team, sang the national anthem before the game to a rousing applause.
Also before the game, injured Yellow Jackets guard Iman Shumpert was on the court taking part in warm-ups. The sophomore has been out since Dec. 5, when he was shelved for knee surgery. He is set to return just after the New Year. But, in perhaps a promising sign, he dunked the ball twice during warm-ups, even doing a pump-clutch reverse jam.