ATHENS, Ga. --- Instead of sitting at home watching Georgia Tech compete in the Orange Bowl, I decided to spend the evening trying to unravel a different Yellow Jackets sports mystery.
In a scheduling snafu that was reflected at the turnstile, Georgia Tech and Georgia conducted the men's basketball portion of their rivalry opposite the bowl game Tuesday night. I counted exactly seven gold-clad visiting fans in a building where the visiting team has been AWOL itself for the past 33 years.
It seems unbelievable that Georgia Tech has not won at Stegeman Coliseum since 1976 -- two years before the Jackets joined the basketball-oriented Atlantic Coast Conference. All the quality teams Georgia Tech has produced and some dog teams Georgia has trotted out over the intervening decades and the Jackets are a stone cold 0-12 in Athens.
Make that 0-13. The Jackets brought their 11-2 record, No. 20 national ranking and Parade All-Americans into the old Athens barn and left with a 73-66 defeat to a Georgia team that boasts an "ex-walk-on as its is best scoring threat from the perimeter."
That ex-walk-on (Ricky McPhee) outscored Georgia Tech's heralded rookie (Derrick Favors) 16-8, for those keeping score.
"To be honest, I couldn't imagine playing for Georgia and being a starter," said McPhee, who played in the same Gwinnett County school system against Georgia Tech star Gani Lawal in high school. "It's just a dream come true."
It's a nightmare that keeps recurring for Georgia Tech. First-year Bulldogs coach Mark Fox now joins Dennis Felton, Jim Harrick, Ron Jirsa, Tubby Smith, Hugh Durham and John Guthrie as coaches who've won in succession against Georgia Tech in Stegeman. Georgia Tech falls to a pitiable 3-25 in the arena that first opened in 1964 -- its last road victory in the series coming 64-43 in a Thanksgiving week season opener in 1976.
Georgia Tech coach Paul Hewitt believed this team would change all that.
"We talked about it and told our team that we had a chance to do something that Tech hasn't done in a long time," the Jackets coach said. "It sounds clichÃ© but when two rivals meet, the records and all that stuff get thrown out and you just have to play the game. It's a crazy game."
Crazy things keep happening in a series where the home team has lost only once since they renewed the alternating home-and-home series in 1996.
But the craziest stuff keeps happening in Stegeman. Take 2004 as the prime example of the mystery.
That year the Yellow Jackets showed up at Stegeman sporting a 12-0 record and a roster that would eventually reach all the way to the NCAA championship game a few months later. But facing a probation-saddled Bulldogs team comprised of a few remnants from the Harrick era, the Jackets fell 83-80 in double overtime.
That game, incidentally, is now immortalized in the background of the hit Hollywood film The Blind Side about former Ole Miss offensive lineman Michael Oher.
Now this Georgia Tech team shows up with its best record since starting 11-2 in 2004-05. On paper, 7-5 Georgia should have been no match.
"It's awfully frustrating," said Lawal, who scored 21 points to lead Georgia Tech. "I really felt like we should have won this game."
Instead, the Bulldogs bowed up to hold serve after hearing about the streak in conversation with some of the Georgia Tech players. Sophomore Trey Thompkins got first wind of the 33-year reign in jawing with his Yellow Jacket friend Iman Shumpert.
"I was amped up because I wanted to defend my court," said Thompkins, who scored 20 in his first taste of the rivals on home hardwood.
Most of the night the Bulldogs fans who filled less than half the seats in the arena were mostly quiet, sensing that the narrow lead the Bulldogs held most of the night would inevitably fall.
But Thompkins and McPhee split the scoring in a 10-5 spurt that turned a one-point lead into a 63-57 edge with under a minute. The crowd started chanting "Just like football!" They weren't referring to the 11-2 and 7-5 records that mirrored the pre-bowl gridiron ledgers of the two programs.
"It's definitely better beating an in-state rival," said Dustin Ware, who delivered 13 points of his own for the Bulldogs.
So the mystery lives on until at least 2011. In the grand scheme of things, it might not matter. Georgia Tech still has big designs entering the ACC season and Georgia still has big holes heading into the SEC.
But this was a promising step for a young coach and his team.
"It's a big win for us in a lot of ways," said Fox. "I told the kids to leave the gym feeling good about themselves because they deserve to."
Reach Scott Michaux at (706) 823-3219 or firstname.lastname@example.org.