March 23, 2017
By Jon Cooper | The Good Word
– It was only a few months ago that it seemed the only way Georgia Tech was going to postseason college basketball games in New York in March was with a ticket.
Actually, that’s still the case.
The Yellow Jackets have their tickets to Manhattan for next week’s Final Four of the National Invitation Tournament. Only they didn’t have to buy them.
Instead, they punched them.
And WHAT a punch! The Jackets (20-15) landed a haymaker, KO’ing Ole Miss, 74-66, Tuesday night at The Pavilion at Ole Miss, a game in which they never trailed — they’ve trailed for 7:01 total in their first three NIT games — and were only tied for 18 seconds.
“What a great win at Ole Miss, on the road,” said head coach Josh Pastner, standing in front of the athletic department’s trophy display in the Edge Center, in the shadow of the program’s 1990 and 2004 NCAA Tournament Final Four trophies. “The environment there was just tremendous. The crowd was great for Ole Miss, but we led wire-to-wire. We had great energy to start both halves, and it got us a lead, which gave us some cushion, especially when we got into situations where we couldn’t score the ball because of our deficiencies. We have continued to improve, we’ve continued to get better.
“It’s great for our program to get to New York,” he added. “It’s a continuation of the exposure. Next week there are only eight teams remaining in college basketball. Four in the NIT, four in the NCAA Tournament. So the exposure that we can get out of this is just special.”
The win over Ole Miss, the Jackets’ 20th of the season, assured this dream season will continue on. They’ll next play Tuesday, against the Roadrunners of Cal State Bakersfield (25-9), regular-season champions of the Western Athletic Conference. Tipoff for first meeting between the schools is at 7 p.m., and the game can be seen on ESPN.
20 wins? The NIT Final Four for the first time since 1971?
It’s a dream come true. Like most dreams, no one realistically saw this coming.
“Back in the summer, when I asked our staff, `How do we get to 20 wins?’ They said, `Coach, just get your mind ready for like seven to 10 at the most. You’ve just got to stop saying 20,'” Pastner recalled and smiled. “We found a way to get to 20, which is, once again, a modern miracle.”
It’s a modern miracle forged by hard work and determination on the court and buying in to the right things off it.
“What I appreciate about all of the guys on our team, is that they’re humble,” said Pastner, who has remained humble after being named ACC Coach of the Year and will do so after being named NABC District 2 Coach of the Year Wednesday afternoon. “They don’t let the people patting them on the back or the praise go to their head, because digesting the praise can be just as poisonous as digesting the negativity. To their credit they’ve been on guard about that.”
They’ve guarded against complacency and anyone on the court with them. On Tuesday, the Jackets held the Rebels 12 points below their average, to 39.7 percent shooting, and 21.4 percent from three — they’d come in shooting 35.2 percent from behind the arc.
“Ole Miss going into that game, the previous two games had shot the daylights out of it — at Syracuse, where it’s nearly impossible to win, and at Monmouth,” Pastner said. “So for us to defend like we did … but that’s been our staple all year. We led the ACC in regular season play in field goal percentage defense. Those numbers don’t lie now. Those are facts. Defense comes down to effort and energy and just working hard and grit and grime and all that good stuff. That’s why we’re a very good defensive team.”
Pastner pointed to five key plays, all of them effort plays — senior forward Quinton Stephens winning the opening tap on a 50/50 ball, a diving effort by freshman guard Justin Moore to gain one last possession late in the half, a layup on that extended possession, which pushed the lead to nine and short-circuited Ole Miss’ momentum going into the break, an offensive rebound by freshman forward Josh Okogie with 3:43 left and Tech up five, and a charge by redshirt senior guard Corey Heyward in the final minute to seal the game.
“All effort, energy, 50/50-ball plays,” said Pastner. “It’s why our team is at the 20-win mark.”
“There’s no denying we are an excellent defensive team,” he added. “Obviously, Ben Lammers is a big plus for that, eight blocks (Tuesday) night, but just overall, our hand activity, we had over 30 deflections (Tuesday). We had 29 deflections vs. Belmont. Our hand activity has been a real plus.”
What kind of plus Georgia Tech adds to the trophy case will be determined next week. In the meantime, with a day off, Pastner is keeping his eye on the future, continuing what began this season.
“We’re there, and it’s great for the program, but listen, we can never forget that this is still a rebuild job. It’s a major rebuild job and it’s going to take some time,” he said. “That’s why they gave me a six-year contract. They were hoping Year Four you’re on the bubble, Year Five you’re in the Tournament. So we’re still in that process. We have to get multiple recruiting classes in. But it’s really great for the program, with the exposure and everything else.”
Without knowing whose film to watch — that would be determined later Wednesday night — Pastner seemed truly excited to get back to his office and start burning up the phone lines on the recruiting trail.
“We have to get back on recruiting, because there are a lot of things going on right now with coaching changes, people transferring, people getting out their NLI’s,”he said. “So we’ve got to be actively recruiting. So it gives me a day to get re-caught up on those things.
“We have a lot more opportunities and that’s the power of television,” he added. “The power of one, winning, and, two, the power of television, being able to have people see and enjoy your style of play.”