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#TGW: Driving the Bus

Nov. 29, 2016

By Matt Winkeljohn | The Good Word

– No heavy duty detective work is required to figure out when Josh Okogie got hot Saturday night on his way to scoring a Georgia Tech freshman record 38 points in an 82-68 win over Tulane.

For a moment on Monday, though, before the Yellow Jackets (4-1) logged their last practice ahead of tonight’s game at Penn State (4-3) in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge, the greenhorn was at a loss to explain how he broke out the blow torch.

He never scored more than 36 at Shiloh High, after all, and only three times in ACC history has a freshman topped 38.

“When I went to bed [Saturday night], I was just in awe,” Okogie said of his 12-of-20 shooting night. “I didn’t know what to think. Still up to this moment, I don’t know what to think. I’m just going to try to play my best next time.”

Here’s a tip for investigators: look at Tulane’s last lead and go from there to learn about the ACC’s Rookie of the Week.

Malik Morgan’s jumper pushed the Green Wave ahead 30-29, and with 2:30 left in the first half in McCamish Pavilion Okogie had four points next to his name.

Ben Lammers soon put Tech on top for good with a layup, and then no Jacket other than Okogie scored for a while.

He scored Tech’s final six points of the first half and the game’s first eight points of the second half. Just like that, in a span of 4:06 with intermission in the middle, the 6-foot-4 guard outscored Tulane 14-2, the Jackets led 45-32, and Okogie was barely halfway to being finished.

So, officially a blaze sparked with 1:50 left before halftime, when he started a string that went layup, layup, jumper, 3-pointer, layup, layup, free throw.

He added 18 more points after that, moving past the Tech freshman record of 33 set by Mark Price against Virginia in the 1983 ACC Tournament and equaled by Dion Glover against Seton Hall in the 1998 NIT.

That was a form of arson.

“When coach called that play, I got the ball in the corner, and when I hit that shot right before the buzzer, it gave me a lot of confidence for the second half,” Okogie said. “I feel like that shot kind of got me going.

“Then in the first few minutes of the second half where I got a basket from Justin Moore, and another one in transition where I got the 3 right before the shot clock, I feel like that whole sequence … gave me confidence to keep attacking offensively.”

Truth be told, Okogie has no right to suggest he lacked confidence.

You don’t score 18 points in your first college game to lead your team, add 18 in your next game, or average 14.3 in your first four by playing scared.

Saturday was special, though, because Okogie took over as a driver. That’s a double entendre to be sure.

He’s not particularly graceful for a backcourt player, attacks the game somewhat as a tight end might, and he goes at the rim as if mad at it.

More to the point against Tulane, Okogie locked in on defense like a pit bull, and head coach Josh Pastner said that led to his offensive efficiency.

“The reason he played his best offensive night was based on the fact that he played excellent defense for the most part,” the coach explained. “There had been times previously where off the ball, he wasn’t dialed in. He didn’t have that laser focus; he was almost waiting on the bus, just standing around.”

Saturday, there was no waiting and little standing. Okogie was hyper vigilant all over the court, adding three assists and a steal, and he took the wheel and drove and drove and drove.

“We’ve been watching film, and [Pastner] always points out the times where he’ll catch me standing on defense,” he said. “By the time something happens, I’m slow to react because I haven’t been in a stance … I’m waiting for the bus.

“I came into the game with a mindset that I didn’t want my opponent to score. In doing that, I was able to create steals, and that defensive energy enabled me to bring energy to offense. I felt like [it] was one of my better focused games.”

Averaging 19.0 points a game, Okogie is playing against typecast.

While he has a jump shot, it’s not feathery – at least not yet – and it won’t remind anyone of a prototypical shooting guard. With three 3-pointers made in 11 attempts this season, the long ball is in his tool bag – in a side pocket.

That 3-pointer he made early in the second half Saturday was his only one in the game, on three attempts.

Nine of his 12 made baskets were layups, and one was a dunk.

Weighing about 207 pounds, Okogie plays stronger than that. Think Charles Barkley light. He had five rebounds against Tulane, is third on the team with 5.6 per game, and his 10 offensive rebounds trail only the 20 by center Ben Lammers.

Working hard around the basket consistently leads to opportunities. When’s the last time a Tech player took 18 free throws? That Okogie made 13 irked him a little, yet that was more the entire Tulane squad (12-of-17).

Midway through the second half, Okogie started to feel something special.

“I was at about 25 [points] I thought, ‘I’ve got to keep attacking the basket; I can’t settle for jump shots,’ because what tends to happen when some people feel hot, they like to just shoot and shoot,” he said.

Okogie’s 38 points were the most by a Tech player since Kenny Anderson scored 42 against Howard on Jan. 2, 1991. It tied for the fourth-highest scoring game in program history.

He’s the fifth Jacket freshman to score 30 or more in a game, joining Anderson (four times), Price (two), Glover and Thaddeus Young.

Just three ACC freshmen have ever scored more. Olivier Hanlan of Boston College put up 41 points against Tech in the 2013 ACC Tournament, and North Carolina’s Tyler Hansbrough (2006) and Harrison Barnes (2011) each scored 40.

So much for reveling in accomplishment.

He said that he hasn’t watched tape of the game. Superstition, or something. “Actually, I haven’t,” he said. “I don’t want to feel too good, because if you feel to good one day, you crash the next.”

There has been time to smile, and Pius and Anthonia Okogie joined the fourth of their five children Saturday night to make sure of it.

“Before the game, my parents said. ‘You should aim for 20.’ They want me to score 20 points, because I always get 18, 18 … they wanted me to break that plain. After the game, they said, ‘All we asked for was 20. We didn’t ask for 38.’

“I’ve been getting a lot of congratulations texts. I just put that to the side. I don’t pay too much [attention] to that because what tends to happen is people get complacent, too happy.”

Pastner and his staff are guarding against that.

“We’re holding him to a high, high standard regardless of whether he’s a freshman. We need him to be really good for us on both ends of the floor,” the coach said. “To have 38 points as a freshman, I don’t care what level you’re on that’s a heck of a number. I don’t care if you’re a senior, let alone a freshman.

“He should have had 40-something if he made some [more] free throws. He’s going to have to be at that pace; we’re going to need him.”

Thirty-eight points may not happen again, but if Okogie keeps after it on defense, who knows? He’s going to watch some Tulane tape after all, but not the highlights. The goal is to stay focused, and that starts on defense.


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