Jan. 6, 2017
By Jon Cooper | The Good Word
– Josh Heath has been around basketball long enough that he knows it’s not who starts the game so much as who finishes it.
That knowledge means even more to him this season as a senior.
Of course, every game matters — they always have to the Tampa, Fla., native — but as the games dwindle down on his career every second on the floor takes on greater meaning.
Heath has shown that urgency, going harder than ever to get the most out of every game, primarily coming off the bench and giving the Jackets a boost.
Be it starting or coming off the bench — it’s all the same to him. Minutes are minutes.
“It really isn’t a difference to me,” said Heath, who is averaging 26.7 minutes and 5.7 points per game, both career-highs. “Every single day I have an opportunity to help my team. So coming off the bench or starting, whatever it is, I still have to run the game plan and try to win games.”
He’s been running it to perfection, usually as the first guy off the bench — something he’s done in each of the last six games — and may not have been better than in the Yellow Jackets’ ACC opener last Saturday against North Carolina, when he played 34 minutes (one minute shy of his career best (March 4, 2014, for University of South Florida at Houston) in Tech’s 75-63 win over No. 9/10 North Carolina at McCamish Pavilion. It was his third double-digit scoring game off the bench, second the team only to Tadric Jackson (6).
He not only played record minutes against the Tar Heels, but produced in a big way. He scored a career-high 15 points, his second double-digit scoring game in the last three (he had 12 on Dec. 22 against Wofford), while tying his season highs for steals (3, after not having a steal in his previous four games), field goals made (4) and free throws (6), going a perfect 6-for-6 from the line.
“I thought Josh Heath was fantastic for us on Saturday and that’s what he’s supposed to be,” said coach Josh Pastner. “He’s a senior. He’s supposed to be like that. So I was proud of him. He’s really came through. I think the more he plays the better he’ll be.”
Doing more and getting better has been a theme this year for Heath, who used the summer to come back from hip surgery.
He simply worked harder, working his way back, something he continues to do, even though he says his hip feels fine.
“I wouldn’t say I’m in the clear,” he said. “I’m just getting extra reps in in the weight room and keeping my body warm during the game, like I’ll go on the bike. All those kinds of things help.”
His commitment has helped him be better than anyone else on the Jackets at the free throw line, where he is converting at 81.8 percent (18-for-22), yet another career best — even better than last season’s .800. His 6-for-6 against North Carolina helped seal the game, as Tech went 9-for-10 over the game’s final 1:33, with Heath and Josh Okogie each going 4-for-4.
That kind of clutch shooting add to Heath’s case to be on the floor at the end of games, where he’s been eight of the 10 games he’s played this season (the only games he wasn’t were the Dec. 7 overtime win at VCU and Wednesday night’s loss at Duke).
Throw in the kind of leadership he’s gained through the experience of playing three years of close games — he’s one of only two players on the Jackets’ roster with more than 10 starts last season (Quinton Stephens is the other) — and Heath is a vital piece to have out on the floor at crunch time and an example for the younger players.
“Me, Q, Corey (Heyward) and Ben (Lammers), we’ve been in a lot of real close games the last couple of years,” Heath said. “I think from that experience it’s helping me just be a little bit more poised on the court and be comfortable in moments like that. I think that if [underclassmen] can look around and see guys like me and Q poised and steady it will help them.”
Heath believes they are already learning that. He pointed to the North Carolina game and the vibe he felt throughout the team.
“Last year when we played them we were kind of in the same situation: five minutes left, close game at their place (Tech trailed 69-67, with 5:07 left before falling, 86-78), but then it was more like, ‘Oh, wow, we’re actually in this game,’” he recalled. “This year I didn’t feel that sense as much. Maybe because I’m a senior now and have been in a lot of close games, but with five minutes left (Tech was up 57-50), I wasn’t like, ‘Wow, we’re in this game.’ I was just thinking, ‘We have to win this game. We can actually pull it off.’”
Pulling it off on a consistent basis is the next step. Things didn’t go well in the follow-up game at Duke. It was a learning experience for the young team.
“If they can stay consistent and they can stay level-headed,” he said. “Just know that every game is a different game and you have to bring it every single game.”
Heath expects the approach leading up to Saturday’s game against No. 9 Louisville to be similar to that leading up to Duke and every game. They’ll just look for a different result on game day.