Jan. 31, 2009
By Jack Wilkinson
For this relief – and make no mistake, relief was the overriding, roaring emotion Saturday afternoon – much thanks. Much screaming. Much jumping and jostling in the elevator inside Alexander Memorial Coliseum, too. And, of course, much … crunk? Yes. Crunk. And why not?
Georgia Tech finally won one in the ACC.
As Beyonce serenaded the First Hoops Fan and First Lady at their first inaugural ball … At last.
“Man, I can’t even describe it,” Gani Lawal said in the wake of Tech’s thrilling 76-74 upset of Wake Forest, on freshman Iman Shumpert’s 17-foot jumper near the top of the key with a second to play. “Losing six straight ACC games, a lot of close ones, some we felt we should’ve won. [Saturday], we just came out really aggressive.”
He found this satisfaction, in a word, “Indescribable.”
“It’s great for the guys,” said Tech coach Paul Hewitt. “You get to 0-6 and you start to doubt yourself. That’s been the biggest thing. We were playing poorly, and I kept telling them that they were doing all the right things.”
Everything, it seemed, but winning. But not now.
“No more excuses about why we lost, or why we can’t win,” Shumpert said. “This is a turning point for us. We’d been right there; now we got over the hump.”
No mere speed bump, this hump had started to look like the wall around Rose Bowl Field. Six ACC losses. Three in overtime, two of them at home, all three by five points or less. Each one, all in all, just another brick in the wall of growing frustration.
“The most disappointing thing about the first six games,” Hewitt said, “was that I thought in at least four [Virginia, Maryland, N.C. State and Boston College] we outplayed our opponent convincingly in my mind, only to lose because of turnovers, free throws and things like that. Other than USC, I don’t think there’s been a game where we walked in and I thought we were outmatched.
“Every game,” Hewitt said, “I’ve said we should win this game if we go out and do what we are supposed to do. The difference was 23-of-30 from the foul line and only one more turnover than we are supposed to have — we had 15 turnovers instead of our goal of 14. That’s the difference, plain and simple.”
Making free throws. Limiting turnovers. “When we do that,” Hewitt said, “I think you’ll see some good basketball out of this group.”
The loudest Alexander crowd of the season roared with delight, and good reason. This, after all, was Wake, briefly ranked No. 1 earlier this season, surely bound for No. 1 again after toppling top-ranked Duke Wednesday night. The Deacons (17-2) led by as many as 10 points in the first half, by four with 1:58 left after a layup by Al-Farouq Aminu. For the precocious 6-foot-9 Wake forward and younger brother of Tech senior Alade Aminu, those were the last of his 17 points. Wake’s last two, too.
“Oh, man, I’m gonna blow up his phone,” said Alade, whose final basket cut it to 74-72, and who finished with 10 points, 13 rebounds and six blocks. His brother had a double-double, too: 17 points, 11 rebounds and five steals. But big brother had the big W.
“I tried to shake his hand,” Alade said. Nothing doing. Al-Farouq was in no brotherly mood. “He’s salty. Everybody knows him as Al-Farouq Aminu. I know him as my little brother.”
All the Deacons now know Shumpert as the kid who did them in. After the Jackets forced a Wake shot-clock violation with 34.5 seconds left, Shumpert stuck a jumper from the top of the key to tie it at 74-all. That was mere prelude.
“He’s growing up,” Hewitt said of the 6-foot-5 freshman from Oak Park, Ill., who had just two turnovers in 34 minutes. “I told him in his living room [on a recruiting visit] that he was going to have the ball in his hands at the end of games. And early on [this season], he was unsuccessful. But you don’t stop going to a guy that you know has talent and courage. Today, he made them, and hopefully this is a hump that he has crossed.”
After a Wake timeout with 7.3 seconds left, the Deacons threw away the inbounds pass when Tech defended well, with Nick Foreman denying Wake point guard Jeff Teague the ball. Tech ball. Iman’s ball.
“No qualms. No problems,” Lawal said of the prospect of the ball, and the outcome, being in Shumpert’s hands. “I told him after the Maryland game, ‘You’re no longer a freshman. You’re a point guard. You’re a good player.’
“And a good player took the last shot.”
“Coach said the ball was gonna be in my hands,” said Shumpert, who dribbled downcourt against Teague, went behind his back, went left, then crossed over deftly to the right before pulling up for the game winner.
“I wanted it.”
Hundreds and hundreds of fans stormed the floor after Wake’s last full-court fling was intercepted. Much like the mob scene after the Georgia win. But this win had been building for awhile.
“Since we got back from Alabama,” Hewitt said of that dispiriting 88-77 loss on Jan. 3, when Tech was 0-1 in the ACC, “our practices have been outstanding. We have had some really intense practices, probably more intense than at any point in my career. We are doing the right things; we just have to get rewarded. Today was a great reward, especially for a young man like Iman.”
For all the Jackets, too, even before the noon tipoff. “We kind of changed a couple of things we did,” said Lawal, whose 25 points included 11 of 14 free throws, and 10 rebounds. In previous games, the pre-game demeanor was much less animated.
“We were kind of down,” Lawal said, “kind of normal, kind of mundane.”
“We were just basically getting crunk,” Lawal said. “We were screaming. We were yelling coming down in the elevator.” The elevator that takes the players from their second-story locker room to the court. “D’Andre Bell was yelling.” Indeed, all the Jackets were yelling. Getting excited during player introductions. Bumping chests.
Getting a win.
“We were 0-6,” Shumpert said, “and snapped our losing streak. And now we want to go 6-0, 8-0, whatever we have left.”
Make it 9-0, including a Feb. 18 rematch at Wake. One in which Tech clearly won’t be cowed.
“If we can play with them,” Hewitt said, “I think we can play with anybody in this league.”