#TGW: Pick-Me-Up

Dec. 28, 2017

By Matt Winkeljohn | The Good Word

– The Yellow Jackets smiled Wednesday night for what felt like the first time in a month, and the Georgia Tech men’s basketball team will open ACC play Saturday at Notre Dame having played much more like itself than in just as long.

A 76-62 win over Coppin State might not have played out like a masterpiece from start to finish, but the Yellow Jackets (6-6) were borderline brilliant while closing out the Eagles with a 25-8 run that was reminiscent of last season.

The energy, the defense, the ball movement … it was all there. Finally.

“We needed that as a team. We’re a little bit there a wounded animal,” said head coach Josh Pastner, whose team had lost five of six. “Some of these guys, Josh [Okogie] and those guys, kind of got their mojo back.”

Tech’s pre-conference schedule may not have taught Pastner much about his veteran players that he did not know, but rather confirmed several suspicions.

The primary findings, or affirmations:

Ben Lammers is not the fastest Yellow Jacket, but when the senior center is healthy enough to move as he wants, Tech is considerably better at both ends of the court, and the energy level picks up.

● The defense improves when Okogie is engaged, which also boosts energy.

● It helps to bring senior guard Tadric Jackson off the bench, where he added big energy with 17 points and a career-high nine rebounds Wednesday.

Hampered by injuries, player suspensions and general noise, not to mention a trip to China to begin the season, the Jackets were in a slow burn for several weeks before Wednesday night, and their return to form hinged on Lammers, who last season was Tech’s most dependable player.

He had 22 points, 11 rebounds, six blocked shots and three assists Wednesday night, by far his most effective outing since he badly sprained his right ankle in the third game of the season. For the better part of four weeks he was unable to practice, and barely even do conditioning work.

Lammers was slogging his way through games until he said, “this is the first game where everything started to feel close to being back to normal. I was able to do some things that I’ve done in the past.”

Tech trailed Coppin State 33-30 at halftime after the Eagles — who entered the game ranked 349th out of 351 Division I teams with a 27.1 percent shooting rate on 3-pointers — made 7-of-15 in the first half.

“I said you’ve got to be kidding me,” Pastner said. “They were shooting not like Coppin State, but Golden State.”

Guard Karonn Davis led the way with 10 points, making 2-of-3 long balls.

Enter Okogie, who’d missed all five of his shots in the first half.

“At halftime coach said he had 10 points, and he not only made plays for himself, but he got his teammates going and they fed off him,” Josh said after asking to cover Davis. “I wanted to take it personally. I tried to do everything in my power to make sure he doesn’t get going.”

Davis didn’t go any more, not with No. 5 draped all over him.

Okogie’s offense had been good enough in his first three games after missing eight due to NCAA suspension and a dislocated index finger on his left hand; he averaged 20.3 points. But his defense was out of focus.

In the second half Wednesday, Davis missed all eight of his second-half shots, and Okogie scored 11 of his 13 points.

“Probably his best game in a year-and-a-half here at Georgia Tech defensively, especially guarding him on the ball,” Pastner said. “It was the first time we’ve had that this year, where somebody demands `I want No. 10,’ and that gave us a little juice there. We need that. That was important for us.”

Tech’s calling card was defense last season, when the Jackets went 21-16, upset highly ranked North Carolina (the eventual national champion), Notre Dame and Florida State, and went all the way to the championship game of the NIT.

There was hardly any sign of defense in the second half of the previous two games, where Tech surrendered 44 and 54 points after intermission in losses to Georgia and Wright State.

With freshman guard Curtis Haywood II missing his fourth consecutive game with a shin injury with a need for scoring punch off the bench, Pastner moved graduate transfer guard Brandon Alston back into the starting lineup, where he began the season with Jackson suspended, and made Jackson a sub.

Alston had 10 points (and two 3-pointers), four assists and a turnover while playing most of the second half at point guard because starter Jose Alvarado was not allowed to return to the game after being hit in the head with 18:30 remaining. Backup point guard Justin Moore is dealing with a family emergency.

Jackson scored 17 points on 6-of-10 shooting.

“Tadric was extremely efficient. I brought him off the bench. We’re better with him coming off the bench,” Pastner said. “And he’s better. Seventeen points, a career-high nine rebounds. He had an efficient game. He gave us some firepower coming off the bench.”

Tech is still learning about its newcomers.

Alvarado has been a whirlwind, starting every game as a freshman, and he entered Wednesday third on the team in scoring (13.6), tied for second in rebounds (4.7) first in assists (3.7) and first in steals (2.1).

Curiously, the offense hummed without him in the second half. That probably had little to do with his absence, actually, and more to do with Tech hitting 16-of-17 free throws after halftime and the Jackets’ sense of mission.

They played with distinct passion after Coppin State took its final lead on a 3-pointer by Cedric Council, Jr., that pushed the Eagles (0-14) ahead 54-51 with 9:51 left.

“Nobody wants to be the first win to a team that hasn’t won any games,” Okogie said. “That kind of sense of urgency, and we lost some games we shouldn’t have lost this year, so … we did all we could to get this win.”

Pastner is not finished mixing and matching.

Moore and Haywood, who started seven games before his shin injury, will miss the Notre Dame game for sure. Junior forward Abdoulaye Gueye, who started eight of 11 games before spraining his ankle and missing Coppin State, was last seen in a walking boot.

Sophomore forward Sylvester Ogbonda is sidelined by a sprained ankle, and Pastner said only, “I assume [Alvarado] will play,” at Notre Dame.

There won’t be much time for rest.

After playing the Fighting Irish (10-3), Tech’s ACC home opener will be Wednesday against No. 15/16 Miami (11-1).

Following a final non-conference game Jan. 6 at home against Yale, the Jackets will plow into 16 consecutive ACC contests.

The coach may not know who’s going to play when, but on Wednesday night, when his team recorded a season-low six assists, Pastner saw how Tech will need to play moving forward.

“Look, we’re banged up, but guys got to get it done. No excuse. Got to find a way. The way for us to get it done is not turn the ball over and make free throws,” he said. “That is our entire deal that we’re going to have to live by playing these teams in the ACC.

“When Ben’s playing as a very high-level player, we’re going to win a lot of games. When he’s not, it’s going to be hard for us.”

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