ANAHEIM, Calif. — Georgia Tech's basketball team spent Thanksgiving Day far from the madding crowd back home in Atlanta, and all the hype on campus surrounding the Yellow Jackets' upcoming football game against Georgia. That made it easier for coach Brian Gregory's squad to focus on the task at hand.
Marcus Georges-Hunt had 11 points and nine rebounds, leading Georgia Tech to a 54-36 victory over Rice on Thursday night in an opening-round game of the DirecTV Classic. They held the Owls to 23 percent shooting and outrebounded them 50-26, including 15 off the offensive glass — resulting in 12 second-chance points.
"We're a team that's still searching to get into a little better rhythm offensively. But this early in the season, our defense and rebounding has gotten us through — and we're OK with that," Gregory said. "Anytime you hold a team to 23 percent from the field and outrebound them 50-26, you've got to be pleased with your effort. Our guys responded well in the second half, in terms of our ball movement. And when we didn't make some shots, we were able to do a good job on the offensive glass."
Georgia Tech (3-0) opened the second half with a 13-3 run, including a 12-footer and a 3-pointer by Brandon Reed 32 seconds apart. Georges-Hunt, a freshman, capped the rally on a pair of free throws, giving the Yellow Jackets a 38-22 lead with 15:11 remaining.
Rice (1-3) went 7:36 without a field goal during that stretch, which was sandwiched by 3-pointers from Owls reserve guard Austin Ramljak. The junior, who grew up in nearby Thousand Oaks and began his collegiate career at Ventura College, led the Owls with 18 points and shot 6 for 12 from the field — all of his shots coming from 3-point range.
"It was a pretty cool experience because a lot of my family was here today," Ramljak said. "The first couple of games I wasn't shooting that great, but I didn't really lose confidence. I was just working on my shot a lot today in the shoot-around, making sure it was right. My dad gave me some pointers before the game from the stands, and that kind of helped out. He wanted me to have the ball more on my fingertips and less on my palms, and hold my release a little bit."
Another 3-pointer by Ramljak got Rice within 42-29 with 7:09 to play, but Georgia Tech closed with a 12-7 run. The Owls didn't convert their first free throw until Tamir Jackson made one of two with 13:59 remaining. Julian DeBose missed all six of his shots.
No player scored more than six points during a seesaw first half that resulted in a 27-19 Georgia Tech lead. The Yellow Jackets opened the game with an 11-0 run as Rice missed its first five shots and didn't make a field goal over the first 5 minutes.
"It was defense. We were pretty much doing what we've been doing — executing the game plan," senior guard Mfon Udofia said. "We prepared pretty much all week for this team and we did the things we were supposed to do in the second half to close the game out.
"Some games aren't going to be perfect, so we just have to grind it out."
Georgia Tech also committed 14 turnovers, but Rice was only able to convert them into four points because of an unyielding transition defense that hustled back every time. They got none off the six turnovers the Yellow Jackets made in the first half.
"We've worked extremely hard on our transition defense," Gregory said. "We know there's going to be times, as guys get their roles a little more defined offensively and we start understanding where different shots are going to come from, that we don't give up any easy baskets. And with us being able to spring back and challenge shots in the open court off the turnovers were a big thing in that first half."
The Owls stormed back and grabbed a 19-15 lead with a 19-4 surge fueled by five 3-pointers, two each by Ramljak and Jackson and the other by Seth Gearhart. But Udofia and Robert Carter Jr. led Georgia Tech on a 10-0 spurt over the final 5:23 of the half.
"We battled defensively against a team we felt we were undersized against," Rice coach Ben Braun said. "We had some stretches where we played some pretty good defense, but we obviously struggled shooting the ball. We're actually a pretty good shooting team, but you wouldn't know it by our stats today."