Feb. 12, 2018
By Jon Cooper | The Good Word
– Being a freshman growing up in the ACC can be hard. There’s so much you just don’t know.
Sometimes, however, what you don’t know not only doesn’t hurt you but helps — like knowing when you’re supposed to give up.
Evidently, that’s a lesson that freshman forwards Evan Cole and Moses Wright not only haven’t learned but defiantly went out of their way NOT to learn Sunday night in Georgia Tech’s 80-69 loss to No. 9 Duke at McCamish Pavilion.
They were at their defiant best early in the second half. With Georgia Tech trailing 51-26 with 17:56 remaining, Yellow Jackets coach Josh Pastner looked down his bench and called upon Cole and Wright to go in and replace seniors Ben Lammers and Tadric Jackson.
Jackson, had been saluted prior to the game in an on-court ceremony for scoring his 1,000th career point, while Lammers is poised to be the next Yellow Jacket to have such a ceremony in his honor. Wright and Moses came in with 84 total points on the season, six in 11 ACC games. Earlier in the game they were 0-for-1, with that one shot not even drawing iron — a Cole airball.
“I took out (Ben) and Tadric, both seniors, I just felt they weren’t getting it done for us,” said Pastner. “I wanted them to sit and told them, ‘Hey, man, if you’re not going to get it done we’ll go in another direction.’ When we put them back in they both did much better.” And what do you say to the freshmen? “Go get ‘em kid,” right?
Not knowing any better, or knowing WHO they were playing, that’s exactly what they did.
“When Coach Pastner called my number, when I got into the game, I just had to give it my all and give as much energy as I could to try to help our team win,” said Cole, who finished with 10 points on 3-for-7 shooting, including a three-pointer and a thunderous follow-up jam that brought the crowd to its feet, with five rebounds, two assists and a blocked shot. Not to be outdone, Wright had nine points – on 3-for-6 shooting (also including a three) – grabbed seven rebounds, three on the offensive end (the rebound and offensive rebound totals both were one off Lammers’ highs), dished out two assists and blocked two shots.
That’s a combined for 19 points on 6-for-13 shooting (.462), 12 rebounds, four assists (vs. only one turnover), three blocks and a steal.
More important, they brought energy to the floor.
“It was great. When they came in and put the effort both on defense and offense, I think it woke everybody up,” said guard Josh Okogie, who scored a game-high 29 and took over the point guard duties after freshman Jose Alvarado landed badly from a block attempt and dislocated his left elbow midway through the first half. “It woke the team up, it woke the crowd up, it woke them up as well.”
“I felt over the last 15 minutes, we really competed and showed great energy, which was shown by how the crowd was appreciative of the effort,” said Pastner. “We got down and then those young guys [Evan Cole and Moses Wright] came in and gave us a great lift.”
Part of Cole and Wright doing what they did Sunday night can be credited to what they’re doing both before and after practices. “Part of the reason those guys were able to give us a lift and get better was because we’ve been treating them as ‘redshirts,’” Pastner said. “They’ve been getting extra workouts in, both lifting and individual work on the court. It’s made them better.”
That is a process in which Cole and Moses, as well as redshirt sophomore Sylvester Ogbonda work doing drills with assistant coaches Eric Reveno and Tavaras Hardy and spend extra time working in the weight room with strength coach Dan Taylor.
“It’s really helped me mature as a player, because I’d usually come in at practice and be like, ‘Okay, I’ll just go through to get by,’” admitted Moses. “But this redshirt process I’m going through has helped me get stronger and faster and mature as a player.”
It’s actually FUN being on the court doing these drills. Drills? Fun? He must be a freshman.
“It’s always fun going out and being with my teammates,” Wright said. “As long as I’m out there having fun with my teammates. That’s what we do it for.”
The hard work manifested itself Sunday night, where in a rare 6 p.m. start, a time that Duke Coach Mike Krzyzewski admitted can be difficult to sustain energy, Wright and Cole were amped up.
During one two-minute stretch in the second half, Wright and Cole sparked a 7-0 run that cut a 25-point lead to 18. First Wright got fouled and hit two shots. Then, on the other end, he grabbed a defensive board and threw an outlet pass to Okogie, who hit a three. After a stop, Cole took a pass from Okogie and scored on a layup. That made Krzyzewski burn a timeout, up 18. On the Jackets’ next possession, Cole stepped in and nailed a three-pointer to cut the lead to 17, then on the other end swatted away a lay-up attempt by Duke’s Gary Trent, Jr., and tied up Javin DeLaurier. Duke got the ball on the possession arrow, but Wright then rejected a Grayson Allen layup.
All these plays pumped up the crowd, which turned up the volume, regaining the decibel level that’s become the norm at the New Thrillerdome. “It was fun with the crowd getting really excited,” said Wright. “It was nice to cut down that lead. You could tell by the atmosphere, some people thought that the game was over. But me and Evan stayed ready on the bench, and when coach called our numbers, we came out there and executed just like he wanted.”
The freshmen got braver as the game went on, Cole taking two more long threes. While they didn’t fall, it showed a rising confidence that may not even have been there at tip-off. “The first time I got in the game, I shot the ball and shot an airball,” Cole said afterward, with a laugh. “When I got pulled out and I was like, ‘Okay, I’m comfortable. I’m just waiting for my number to be called.’ When it was called again, I went in there and I was much more comfortable and was able to do my thing, play my game.”
Cole and Moses both knew they had Okogie’s support. “I told (Cole) during the game, ‘I love it! I love it! I love it! Just keep on going!’” he said. “I remember when coach first put him and Mo in, I told them, ‘I don’t care if you shoot 30 times and miss 30 times. Every time a shot goes up, I want you guys to crash the glass as hard as you can.’ That’s what they did and they looked really good.”
It looked good enough to the fans to serenade Cole with cheers of “Ev-an Cole! Ev-an Cole!” twice, including the final time with 21 seconds left when he went to the bench after committing his fifth foul.
It also earned him respect from Krzyzewski, who saw several of his players step up in the absence of their star freshman and leading scorer Marvin Bagley III.
“A couple kids that haven’t played for them came through. [Evan] Cole was so good and [Moses] Wright, they made big-time plays,” he said. ““You’re never surprised at anything in our league,” he added. “That’s what I’m saying about the character of their team. Although it’s a great time to put them in. They’re 22 points down [with] a lot of game left and, all of a sudden, it’s their time. That’s what happens in sport every once in a while: kids get their opportunity. Both of them played really well. I mean big-time plays. In this game, Josh [Pastner] probably found something. He found two kids that want to play.”
Pastner has indicated that they’ll do just that.
“Absolutely. Both Evan and Moses earned more playing time,” he said. “We’re still going to treat them as ‘redshirts’ in terms of the work mentality. That won’t change.” Pastner added that he expects Wright and Cole to anchor what promises to be a really good freshman class in years to come once Alvarado and Curtis Haywood II get healthy.
“With Jose and Curtis and Moses and Evan, when those guys are sophomores and juniors, I think those guys are going to be good four-year players,” he said. “As they get older they’re going to really help us.”