CLEMSON, S.C. - It was just two games, but Georgia Tech's recent losing streak sure seemed a whole lot larger . It weighed so heavily on Yellow Jackets' coach Paul Hewitt's mind that he couldn't quite find a way to express his emotions to his team.
So near 20 victories, so close to all but securing a spot in the NCAA Tournament for the first time in three seasons and suddenly the Yellow Jackets' game with Atlantic Coast Conference doormat Clemson took on added importance.
"We considered it a must-win," senior guard Marvin Lewis said.
They got it. Georgia Tech weathered a power outage, a points outage and a career day from Sharrod Ford in securing a not--so-easy 79-60 victory at Littlejohn Coliseum on Saturday afternoon.
The Yellow Jackets (20-8, 7-7 in the ACC) earned their first 20-win season since 1995-96 and all but locked up its spot in the NCAA Tournament.
"In college basketball that is the mark of a good team, in terms of victory totals," said Hewitt, who admitted to feeling "uptight" before the game. "It's also something everybody strives for every year - to get 20 wins."
Georgia Tech never trailed in outlasting Clemson (10-16, 3-12) which is headed to the ACC Tournament play-in game for the fourth consecutive year. But the Yellow Jackets still needed a big basket from Lewis midway through the second half to feel comfortable.
Georgia Tech led 44-28 early in the second half before Clemson, in a rare stretch of good 3-point shooting, triggered a 12-3 run that brought the home crowd to life. The Tigers, the worst 3-point shooting team in the conference, missed their first seven tries from behind arc against Georgia Tech. Clemson made 7 of 12 in the second half, including 4 of 5 during its run. The barrage closed the Tigers' deficit to 47-40 with 10:05 remaining.
That's when Lewis responded.
Off an in-bounds play, the Yellow Jackets freed Lewis for a 3-pointer from the right side, and the senior knocked it down to calm the crowd. After a Clemson turnover, B.J. Elder - who scored 16 of his 17 points in the second half - drained a jumper to give Georgia Tech a comfortable 52-40 edge.
"It was big just because on the road, you've got to stop some of that momentum. A lot of times emotions can carry the opposing team especially when they're at home," Lewis said. "Hitting those big shots is deflating for the other team."
Lewis paced the Georgia Tech attack with 18 points, including four second-half 3-pointers, and center Luke Schenscher added 11 points. Point guard Jarrett Jack played one of his best games of the season, scoring 11 points, dishing out nine assists (against one turnover) and grabbing eight rebounds in 33 minutes.
Hewitt made an emphasis on keeping Jack on the floor more often to help the Yellow Jackets' offensive flow.
"I just took it upon myself to lead the team out there on every possession," Jack said. "Not taking any possession off, making sure we got a good shot and a good defensive series every time."
The Yellow Jackets never did find an answer for Ford, who had 20 points, 16 rebounds and four blocked shots. But he got little help as Clemson's top three guards - Shawan Robinson, Vernon Hamilton and Chey Christie - combined for 22 points on 6 of 23 shooting as Clemson dropped its third straight and 10 of its last 12.
A superbly played second half erased some of the memories off a bizarre first half. Georgia Tech scored the game's first nine points before the lights went out with 16:22 remaining. A 27-minute delay ensued.