March 14, 2017
By Jon Cooper | The Good Word
– Quinton Stephens has spent four years putting Georgia Tech basketball first. He’s never sought recognition for that — never mind a reward.
But on Tuesday night, as Stephens heads into his final postseason, he will get rewarded as he’ll have the opportunity to start and play one more time in front of the home fans at McCamish Pavilion when Georgia Tech hosts Indiana in the first round of the 2017 National Invitation Tournament. (Tip-off is at 9 p.m. The game will be televised nationally on ESPN).
Call it blind luck — the sixth-seeded Jackets got home court, as No. 3 Indiana passed with its students out on spring break.
Call it good karma from “The Basketball Gods” for his never stopping in giving of himself for the good of the program.
Call it whatever you want, but getting one more game at home in the school’s ninth appearance in college basketball’s longest-held tournament against one of college basketball’s most storied programs is a treat and certainly something Stephens won’t be taking for granted. It’s kind of like a second Senior Night.
“I think that it’s awesome,” he said. “Playing in Atlanta will be great. I know our fans will come out and support us and we’re excited. We won’t be introduced the same way, but being able to play at home is great.”
Playing against the Hoosiers for only the third time — the last time was Nov. 27, 2007 in the ACC-Big Ten Challenge, won by IU, which is 2-0 in the series — adds additional luster.
“The Hoosiers, it just gives you chills,” he said. “I take it just the same as playing like UNC or Duke. They’re a historical team. I think Georgia Tech is a historical team.”
Stephens’ coaches and teammates are as happy he has this opportunity to cap off an especially unselfish season.
“To his credit he’s bought into what we needed him to do, and I love him for it,” said head coach Josh Pastner. “I’m hoping we continue this ride and hopefully win on Tuesday and keep the thing moving. But either way we have an opportunity to have a great game at home no matter what happens.”
“What `Q’ has meant to this team is just him willing to do whatever the team needs,” said fellow redshirt-senior guard Corey Heyward. “This year he’s had to be on the inside, guarding bigger players, rebound the ball, give up his body. I think that’s where `Q’ has taken the biggest stride and accepted his role and done it really well with that.”
Stephens had a tremendous final season and provided leadership and stability on a young team that lacked experience.
He was one of three Jackets to start all 32 games, joining second-team All-ACC and Defensive Player of the Year, junior center Ben Lammers and ACC All-Freshman and four-time ACC Rookie of the Week, guard Josh Okogie. That’s six more starts than he had his first two seasons (12 as a sophomore and 14 as a junior). He nearly doubled his minutes playing 33.0 per game (he came in averaging 17.3 mpg), going the full 40 four times — twice doing so back-to-back and also played a season-high-tying 42 in the overtime win at VCU.
He also doubled his scoring (9.9 ppg from 5.0 last season), rebounding (7.6, tied for seventh in the ACC, up from 3.8 rebounds) and basically surpassed his previous best in every offensive category.
“We struggle winning if Quinton doesn’t play well,” said Pastner. “He and Ben Lammers have to play well because we’re so limited in the front court. Quinton has overachieved this year, he has given us everything he’s had.”
“`Q’ is a great team leader and he’s one of the main energy guys that everyone feeds off during the game,” said Lammers. “He’s been a key component in every win we’ve had.”
Stephens has been at his best when he’s gotten others involved, as the Jackets are 8-4 when he has at least three assists — his 68 assists this season are only nine fewer than he had in his previous three years combined. That team play has been the key to Tech’s coming together this year, winning eight games in ACC play and nearly finishing at .500.
“I think we all did it as a team,” he said. “That’s what it really comes down to — us realizing that the power of team surpasses the power of any individual. We’ve shown that throughout this year with some good wins.”
Stephens’ role in making his teammates better extended beyond game day. He was a vocal leader in the locker room and on the practice floor.
“`Q’ has been huge,” said Okogie. “He’s all about toughness. He can still shoot the ball well, but what he brings to the table … he brings communication, makes sure everybody is where they’re supposed to be. He’s always communicating. It makes us talk, too. Everybody’s talking. His rebounding, his energy has been big for us.”
The image of Stephens leading warmups is one Heyward will always remember.
“It’s him during practices, the moment that fans don’t see,” he said. “He gets us going from the start of practice. He leads us for stretching and that’s kind of where we get our energy. That’s the true moment I can see `Q’ stepping out of his comfort zone to be and being that energy, and vocal guy during practice each and every day.”
Stephens knows the number of games in his college career are at a premium and is treasuring every one. That’s why as tempted as he is, he can’t look past Indiana to the possible second-round matchup with Georgia. Tech is 3-1 against the Bulldogs in his career, and Stephens scored his then-career-high 22 as a sophomore (he matched it on Jan. 15, 2017 at NC State), nailing a career-best six three-pointers. But the Jackets would like to avenge this year’s loss.
“One game at a time,” he said, with a laugh. “I would love to play Georgia again. Subconsciously you think about Georgia, Madison Square Garden, the potential of playing Syracuse again (that would come in the quarterfinals). But Indiana is a great team, and we’re going to have to play a really good game to win.”
For Stevens, this NIT run means a more than last year’s, as he’s played a much bigger role, but he insists that it’s not about him. If anything, it’s about everyone BUT him.
“This year is special, I mean it’s my last time playing for Georgia Tech,” he said. “I really want this for the younger guys more than I want it for myself and then the guys that we’re recruiting, I want them to know that Georgia Tech in on the map and is a good place to come play.”
That he’s helped make it a better place is satisfying.
“I think I left the team in a better place than where I came in as far as the culture,” he said. “With Coach Pastner coming in, just having a self-motivated culture, making sure guys that want to come here really want to be here and want to get better, that’s something that I take pride in. Knowing that our culture has transformed is exciting for me.”
“We REALLY wanted the NCAA Tournament but we’re still excited about the NIT,” he added. “We’re trying to get to Madison Square Garden. The opportunity to play against Indiana and play in front of our fans again, that’s a great opportunity. We’re looking forward to it.”
He’d like to add the exclamation point, beginning tonight.