ATLANTA -- When Steve Smith finally arrived at McCamish Pavilion on Tuesday night, people told him the game was all but over.
There were four minutes left in the ACC-Big Ten Challenge matchup between Georgia Tech-Illinois, but the offensively-challenged Yellow Jackets were trailing 60-53 and had scored just nine points since the 16-minute mark. Smith, the former NBA All-Star who played college ball at Michigan State during Georgia Tech coach Brian Gregory's first two seasons as a Spartans assistant, walked into the building anyway. He witnessed a comeback, too.
The struggling Yellow Jackets erased a late deficit to the previously undefeated Illini by piecing together a 19-4 run to close out the game, winning 67-64 behind the efforts of sophomores Robert Carter, Jr. and Marcus Georges-Hunt. The Big Ten challengers scored just one basket over the final nine minutes of play.
It wasn't a consistent effort, nor an efficient one, but protecting home court was imperative for a team reeling from losing three games (Dayton, Ole Miss, St. John's) over a 10-day span after entering the season with higher expectations in Year 3 under Gregory. Beating this Illinois team does not answer the multiple questions facing Georgia Tech -- the Illini looked like a quality team in stretches, especially potential All-Big Ten guard Rayvonte Rice, but they are relatively untested after playing a soft schedule to open the season; the trip to McCamish was the most difficult game to date -- but at least it provides some positive momentum. It's certainly better than the alternative.
"When we were down, I looked up at the clock and it was like three minutes, 30 seconds and Coach Gregory was telling us that's actually a lot of time in basketball because it's a game of runs," said Georges-Hunt, who scored 20 points on 7of-13 shooting. "So we told each other, 'Let's keep getting stops, limit them to one shot and make the baskets on offense."
While Rice ran wild on Georgia Tech's defense in stretches, the Yellow Jackets were eventually able to come up with stops, particularly down the stretch run. The offense, on the other hand, remains a troublesome issue. Gregory's team entered Tuesday's game ranked 191st nationally in offensive efficiency, and there's very little on tape to argue otherwise. The team's backcourt play with Trae Golden, Chris Bolden and Solomon Poole has been up and down, at best, and turnovers, outside shooting and the team's inability to consistently get to the free throw line -- you know, those factors that help make an offense dangerous -- are each a concern. Gregory knows this.
"At this point of the process, sometimes we are going to struggle offensively, I can live with that," he said.
While senior center Daniel Miller is an effective piece on the floor, it's becoming more and more apparent that this Yellow Jackets offense will only go as far as Georges-Hunt and Carter, Jr. can carry it.
Make no mistake, the two sophomores have the ability. Both were highly-rated recruits and against Illinois, a top-50 defense, both dropped 20=plus points. The two also combined for six assists and six offensive rebounds all of this coming despite long stretches of silence.
Consider the second-half moment when Georgia Tech took its biggest lead of the game, 44-39 with 16:31 remaining, and the events that followed: Carter, Jr. and Georges-Hunt combined for just one shot over the subsequent seven minutes as Illini ran up a commanding 60-48 lead. This Yellow Jackets team cannot have such non-factor stretches from those two, especially not at the same time. They are too talented, and their team is too offensively deficient to beat good teams with their contributions. Gregory knows this, too.
"Our two sophomores were exceptional today, and we need that on a daily basis."
That turned out not to be an issue against Illinois. The 6-foot-8 Carter Jr. continues to develop into an inside-outside threat worth respecting, hitting two 3s and drawing praise from opposing coach John Groce. If not a matchup nightmare, he is showing the ability to stretch a defense and give Miller and his slashing guards a little more room to work with.
However, at least from one observer's perspective, the key to this team's offensive identity is Georges-Hunt, the 6-foot-5 force from College Park, Ga. He's simply too good to hide, or be hidden, like he does at times. When Georgia Tech needs a basket, he's the primary option and when he's not playing well -- Gregory described him as "banged up" for his four-point outing against St. John's -- the Yellow Jackets will struggle against even decent teams to come up with points.
"(Georges-Hunt) made some plays tonight. The best thing about Marcus Georges Hunt is this; he drove a play to get fouled, not to finish and maybe get fouled, and the ref made the right call and didn't call it. I call him over and I said, you can't do that. You've got to drive it to score and if you get fouled, you get fouled.' He said, 'Coach your right, we'll get a stop, we'll make it up.' That's what you need."
That, plus being an offensive centerpiece for 30-plus minutes per game.
In the final four minutes of the Jackets' win, Carter Jr. and Georges-Hunt combined for nine points and one (pivotal) assist. So perhaps Steve Smith just needs to arrive on time for now on.