In the opening minutes of the second half of yesterday's ACC tournament semifinal against Virginia Tech, Georgia Tech point guard Jarrett Jack was dribbling upcourt at MCI Center. The Fort Washington native turned to teammate B.J. Elder and asked: "What play do you want to run? I'm coming at you right now."
For too long this season, the Yellow Jackets couldn't turn to Elder, last year's leading scorer. The senior guard missed the first nine ACC games because of a strained left hamstring, and the Yellow Jackets lost five of those games without him. After he returned against Clemson on Feb. 8, Georgia Tech won four of its last seven to finish 8-8 in conference play and position itself for an at-large bid into the NCAA tournament.
Hokies' Deron Washington is called for goaltending on this shot by Georgia Tech's B.J. Elder, right, who finished with 19 points.
(Jonathan Newton -- The Washington Post)
But until yesterday's game, a 73-54 rout of the fourth-seeded Hokies, the fifth-seeded Yellow Jackets had not felt the full effects of having a healthy Elder back in their lineup. Elder, from Madison, Ga., scored 19 points on 8-of-14 shooting, and Georgia Tech shot 65.4 percent in the second half to advance to play top seed North Carolina in today's semifinals.
"If we stay healthy, we're a good team," Georgia Tech Coach Paul Hewitt said. "There are a lot of good teams out there. If we stay healthy, we can play with anybody."
Georgia Tech (18-10) isn't far behind from where it was at this time last season, when it advanced to the national championship game. The Yellow Jackets went into the 2004 ACC tournament with a 22-8 record, beat North Carolina in the quarterfinals and lost to top-seeded Duke in the semifinals. Georgia Tech entered the NCAA tournament as a No. 3 seed and won four consecutive games over lower-seeded teams before beating No. 2 seed Oklahoma State in the Final Four in San Antonio.
The Yellow Jackets lost badly to Connecticut, 82-73, in the national championship game. They never had much of a chance against the Huskies, not after Elder sprained his right ankle in the opening minutes against Nevada. After scoring 30 points in the first two NCAA tournament games, Elder scored only 16 in the next four, including 14 against the Huskies on 4-for-15 shooting.
"You just see it out there in our offense," Jack said yesterday, when asked how much better the Jackets are when Elder is on the court. "I think it takes a lot of pressure off a lot of guys. Guys can stay within themselves and don't have to press too much."
The Hokies -- who beat the Yellow Jackets, 70-69, in Atlanta on Jan. 22 -- led 23-19 late in the first half. But Georgia Tech closed the half with an 11-2 run, with Elder scoring five points on a hook shot and three-pointer. The Yellow Jackets then opened the second half by scoring the first nine points, as Jack's three-pointer from the right wing gave them a 39-25 lead with 17 minutes 25 seconds to play.
Georgia Tech built its lead to 24 points in the second half. Virginia Tech (15-13) shot only 37.3 percent and was outrebounded 37-27. Jack and guard Will Bynum had 13 points apiece, and senior forward Carlos Dixon led the Hokies with 12 points.
"They are playing at a very, very high level right now," Virginia Tech Coach Seth Greenberg said of the Yellow Jackets. "Obviously, B.J. Elder means a great deal to their team. He is a terrific player and makes them a better team. . . . He can make shots. He can post up and draws double teams. Because he draws double teams, they can pass it back out and drive. He's good."
The loss was disappointing for the Hokies, who had a slim chance at getting an NCAA at-large bid if they had beaten the Yellow Jackets. Virginia Tech finished fourth in its first season in the ACC and probably will be invited to play in the National Invitation Tournament.
"We didn't help ourselves," Greenberg said. "We worked so hard for seven months, and we didn't show the sense of urgency that we had for so long. We just picked a bad time and place to have a bad game."