ATLANTA (AP)—Georgia Tech coach Paul Hewitt will not settle for mediocre defense, so he continues to challenge his players’ efficiency.
“If it’s about playing hard and being an also-ran, we’re good enough right now,” Hewitt said after the 21st-ranked Yellow Jackets beat Penn State 77-73 in the ACC-Big Ten Challenge on Tuesday night.
“But if we want to play hard and give ourselves a chance to string some wins together, we’ve got to play better defensively.”
Lewis Clinch scored 20 points and Anthony Morrow’s late free throws sealed the win.
The Yellow Jackets (6-1), coming off an 88-73 loss to now-No. 1 UCLA in the title game of the EA Sports Maui Invitational last week, never put away Penn State after Jeremis Smith’s five-footer gave them a 69-61 lead with 3:24 remaining.
Jamelle Cornley led the Nittany Lions (4-2) with 20 points. Ben Luber, who added nine assists, hit two straight 3-pointers, the last coming with 44.4 seconds remaining, to keep Penn State close.
Danny Morrissey’s 3 from the left wing cut the lead to 74-71 with 21.1 seconds remaining.
“I know coach Hewitt is disappointed that we didn’t challenge them better on the perimeter and in the paint,” Smith said. “He’s right. We’ve got a lot of work to do.”
Morrow, whose two foul shots ended the scoring with 8.2 seconds left, gave Georgia Tech a 67-59 lead by hitting a wild 3 from the left corner as the shot clock almost expired near the four-minute mark.
“That was a back breaker, but I thought we had the tempo where we needed it,” Penn State coach Ed DeChellis said. “We just weren’t very strong with the ball in the backcourt.”
The Nittany Lions had to monitor the minutes of Geary Claxton, who came off the bench in just his second game since returning from a broken hand. Claxton had 30 starts in each of the last two seasons and averaged 15.2 points and 7.5 rebounds as a sophomore.
In 28 minutes, Claxton had 12 points and six rebounds. His layin with 3:58 remaining cut the lead to 67-61.
“Claxton is still limited,” DeChellis said. “He has this thing on his hand and he can’t shoot the basketball (effectively from the perimeter), and he can’t drive it right-handed. We tried to get him around the basket. We tried to get him in the post.”
Clinch and Morrow each went 4-for-8 from behind the arc.
Morrow finished with 15 and Javaris Crittenton added 14.
“I feel like we can beat any team in the country,” Clinch said. “We are so good offensively that if we can play defense, the rest will take care of itself.”
Hewitt wants Clinch to take a different approach to basketball.
“He’s making shots, but I’m very honest with my guys,” Hewitt said. “Of the 20 he scored, I know of at least six he gave back in the first half on just simple breakdowns.”
The Nittany Lions fell to 1-16 against ranked opponents under DeChellis. Now in his fourth season at Penn State, DeChellis has a 5-28 overall road record.
“I think we have improved since a week ago when we played,” DeChellis said. “Is it a moral victory? No, it’s still miserable. It’s a loss, but I thought we did some positive things.”
Georgia Tech’s Thaddeus Young, a highly regarded freshman averaging 14.2 points and 4.5 rebounds, was not in uniform and missed his first game because of patellar tendinitis.
Hewitt hopes Young will recover in time for the team’s Atlantic Coast Conference opener at Miami on Sunday.
“I guess if we had really pushed it, he could have played tonight,” Hewitt said, “but I didn’t see the sense in doing that.”
Hewitt used a three-guard lineup with Mario West making his first start of the season.