Hoping to get a jolt of energy from the newly eligible Jordan Usher, Georgia Tech instead scraped bottom Wednesday night. With offensive play that was disjointed and lethargic, the Yellow Jackets lost 65-47 to Ball State at McCamish Pavilion.
It was quite possibly the worst loss of coach Josh Pastner’s 110-game tenure. The last time Tech lost at home to a non-conference opponent by a wider margin was Nov. 2005, a 22-point defeat to Illinois-Chicago. Invariably optimistic, Pastner was unusually defeated after the game.
“Of my four years, this is the worst game — maybe my 11 years as head coach — the worst game I’ve been around in terms of energy and not (being) able to explain it,” Pastner said. “I can’t explain on this one.”
Usher, playing in his first game for the Jackets after transferring from USC in January, got the start, taking the floor in glittery gold sneakers. Playing with unbridled energy, Usher was effective on defense but was called for a charge in the early going and was taken out less than four minutes in. He was called for another charge before the end of the first half, turning the ball over five times in eight minutes of play. He finished with four points on 1-for-7 shooting with four rebounds and six turnovers in 19 minutes.
It was undoubtedly a disappointment for the Wheeler High grad, who had been eagerly awaiting his return to the court and had dozens of supporters in the arena.
Pastner was mystified at Usher’s play, saying that he had been “outstanding” in the team’s practices since transferring.
“Maybe I should not have started him and let him work his way in,” Pastner said. “Maybe that would have been better.”
Usher’s play was only one part of the problem, and not the most significant. From the start, Tech (4-5) failed to take care of its possessions in a staggering variety of ways – throwing passes out of bounds, throwing them to the Cardinals, losing control of the dribble, traveling and getting called for charges. The Jackets turned the ball over 24 times in the game, matching their season high. That total included an almost unthinkable 16 turnovers in 34 first-half possessions. Remarkably, Tech had more turnovers than points in the first half. The Jackets were typically effective on defense in the 20 minutes, themselves forcing 11 turnovers, but Ball State (6-4) still led 31-15 going into halftime.
In a five-possession stretch to end the first half, guard Bubba Parham threw a pass out of bounds when he misread forward Moses Wright, Wright traveled while pivoting, he traveled again on the next possession driving to the basket, center James Banks had his dunk try blocked and forward Khalid Moore was off target on a pass to forward Evan Cole as he cut to the basket.
“It’s embarrassing, not because we lost by so much (but) just the way we played and the energy we brought, and that’s on us as a unit,” Banks said. “I take a lot of that (responsibility) being a senior leader on this team. Coming out this way is unacceptable.”
The Jackets didn’t do much better when they were able to get shots at the rim. Frequently resorting to one-on-one play in an offense built for ball movement, Tech shot 17-for-51 (a season-low 33 percent) against Ball State. Tech scored 12 of its 47 points in the final 2:30, mostly played against Ball State’s backups, earning cheers from an admirably loyal McCamish crowd announced at 4,203. Tech could again have used point guard Jose Alvarado, out with a sprained ankle, but the source of this loss went far deeper than missing a key player. The Jackets were again errant from the free-throw line (9-for-15 for 60 percent) but it was inconsequential in the outcome.
“We had a very good shootaround and guys practiced well,” Pastner said. “We just played well on Saturday vs. Kentucky. I don’t know why we played ‘my shot, my shot, my shot.’ We never played the open man’s the go-to man. Again, that falls on me. It was very disappointing.”
Guard Michael Devoe sought to take on the scoring load himself, repeatedly driving to the basket for tough shots, perhaps seeking a foul call. He finished with 11 points on 4-for-14 shooting and turned the ball over three times. Devoe averaged 23.8 points per game on 55 percent shooting from the field in Tech’s first six games but has scored a total of 23 points on 8-for-37 shooting in the three games since.
“He’s got to be in the same boat, that the open man’s the go-to man,” Pastner said. “Can’t be ‘my shot.’ However, again, this falls on me, not on the players.”
It was a continuation of the offensive struggles that have attended the Jackets through most of the season and Pastner’s tenure, now in its fourth year. Tech entered the game 347th in Division I in free-throw shooting, 341st in turnovers per game and 307th in 3-point field-goal percentage.
In a season in which Pastner has held hopes and even plans for the Jackets to return to the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2010, Tech has now lost three games in a row, including back-to-back home losses (the first to Syracuse) by a combined 52 points. Those games sandwiched a 67-53 road loss to No. 6 Kentucky in which the Jackets might have threatened the Wildcats had they not gone cold midway through the second half.
Ball State shot 48.1 percent from the field, including 10-for-23 (43.5 percent) from 3-point range. The Cardinals’ lead peaked at 65-35 with 2:35 to play before coach James Whitford emptied his bench.
“We really played our best game of the year, obviously, by far,” Whitford said. “Both sides of the ball And it was a big win for us.”
Whitford was gracious in victory, taking the unusual role of mid-major coach trying to soften the blow for his vanquished ACC opponent.
“You could see their rhythm being a little off and that’s normal,” Whitford said of Tech’s adjustment to playing with Usher. “You have no way to get through it other than to just play it. You have to get that time together on the court.”
The Jackets are scheduled to fly to Honolulu Thursday to take part in the Diamond Head Classic. Tech will play Boise State Sunday in the first round of an eight-team tournament.
“We’ve just got to figure it out and regroup and try to win some games in Hawaii,” Pastner said.
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