March 20, 2017
By Matt Winkeljohn | The Good Word
– In a season chocked full of the unlikely, it’s highly unlikely that Sunday could have unfurled itself any more wonderfully for Georgia Tech men’s basketball, its players, coaches, fans and especially Quinton Stephens.
The senior stretch forward uncorked the best game of his four-year collegiate run, scoring a career-high 23 points, adding eight rebounds, four assists and two steals without a turnover to run as the vanguard for a team that has become – relative to pre-season expectations – a colossus adored.
The Yellow Jackets (19-14) soundly beat a fine Belmont squad, 71-57, in the final home game of the season, sending some 7,176 Tech fans home from McCamish Pavilion more ravishingly happy about their team than in years. A random visitor never would have guessed it was an NIT game, nor that students had two days earlier begun spring break. Rather, it could easily have been mistaken for an NCAA Tournament contest, or even an ACC regular season tilt against a blueblood.
No wonder Stephens said afterward, “I’m really grateful. I love McCamish Pavilion.”
Fans loved the Jackets back Sunday, and Belmont head coach Rick Byrd sure noticed. With 731 career wins in a 36-year head coaching career, he’s the sixth-winningest active coach in the sport. He’s taken the Bruins (23-7) to the postseason in 11 of the past 12 seasons, including seven NCAA Tournament bids, and with 26 regular or conference tournament titles since 2006, only Kansas and Gonzaga have won more.
The man is uniquely qualified to say, “Tremendous atmosphere. Golly. We love the opportunity to play in the NIT, but as a lot of you know, sometimes places don’t get as excited about that as they ought to. This place was excited about an NIT game, and it was a great atmosphere.”
This has been building for more than a couple months, beginning un-officially with the Jackets’ upset of North Carolina on Dec. 31 in the ACC opener, and continuing with home wins over Florida State, Notre Dame and Syracuse.
Once again on Sunday, the Jackets broke out the collective throttle, limiting Belmont to 10-of-33 shooting on the way to a 30-26 halftime lead.
Tech has been ranked in the top 10 nationally in defensive efficiency much of the season, and the way they’ve bought into Pastner’s requests for ceaseless energy and passion keeps showing up. Stephens had one of Tech’s three steals in that first half, and scored eight points, including a pair of 3-point shots.
“I think what I did here was what I needed to do,” said Stephens, who had blood on his jersey after the game, courtesy of a cut on a finger. “Everything really lined up with this team, I think. The personnel, the coach, the energy of coach Pastner, and just the seniors that we have here really wanted to buy in. Everyone came into new roles, and they embraced it.”
Nobody’s heart was more warmed then Stephens’, as the former Marist star so appreciated not only the opportunity to be a cornerstone piece in a wondrous turnaround on The Flats under first-year head coach Josh Pastner, but also for the chance to soak up the reflected joy of a dormant fan base shocked awake as if by defibrillator paddles. In beating Belmont, which eliminated Georgia in Athens a few days earlier, the Jackets won for the 17th time at home, a program record.
“I felt a lot of emotions with this team, and I couldn’t ask for a better coach, better team,” he said. “I’m just having a lot of fun, and I’m grateful.”
When the Jackets play at Ole Miss (22-13) Tuesday night, with the winner advancing to the NIT semifinals in New York City’s Madison Square Garden, the joy ride will continue.
In the preseason, Tech was picked by the ACC media finish next-to-last in the league. Pastner many times before the first tip-off, and many times since, referenced a “massive rebuild,” yet as it has played out, there’s more in the Jackets’ cupboard than many thought.
Josh Okogie was tabbed to the ACC’s All-Freshman team, and he did his part Sunday with 15 points, rebounds, five assists, two blocks and two steals.
Junior center Ben Lammers made the All-Defensive team, and earned second team All-ACC honors. Sunday, he added 14 points, 10 rebounds, and two assists. He led the ACC in blocked shots, and while he didn’t swat one against Belmont, he altered several and picked up four steals in the second half.
Junior Tadric Jackson has become more and more dependable off the bench, and he scored 10 of his 13 in the first half against Belmont.
All the Jackets found their offensive rhythm in the second half, when they twice pushed the lead to 23 points, the first time on Stephens’ jumper with 11:17 left in the game, and again when he scored a layup with 7:22 to go shortly after he’d made a steal.
Tech scored on 20 of 37 possessions in the second half, shooting 16-of-29 as Quinton made 7-of-9. The Jackets assisted on 23 of their 26 made field goals, and senior point guard Josh Heath had seven dimes.
As much as any player, Stephens has taken the yoke of leadership with a do-whatever-it-takes drive.
The slender career wing player slid into the power forward spot, digging in game after game, and putting up career highs of 10.5 points and 7.7 rebounds per game, not to mention career highs in assists (75), steals (39), blocked shots (26) and 3-pointers (55-of-173). In his first three seasons combined, he had 77 assists, 34 steals, 36 blocks and 78 3-pointers.
“He bleeds Georgia Tech, and literally bled, but he laid the foundation for what we’re trying to build,” said Pastner, who was named ACC Coach of the Year. “For him to finish out like he did, I’m so happy for him. I love him dearly.
“Quinton Stephens and Josh Okogie combined [for] nine assists with no turnovers, which is terrific. Tadric has played back-to-back good games … in the end, just a beautiful win, beautiful basketball.”
In the end, defense mattered most.
Belmont, which previously lost only to five teams that went to the NCAA Tournament and then was upset in the Ohio Valley Conference by Jacksonville State – which it beat by 17 and 13 points in the regular season – couldn’t get going.
Sure, the Bruins made 11-of-33 3-pointers, but they were 10-of-30 inside the arc. There, the Jackets’ passion was most evident.
“They’re certainly athletic, but I think it’s more about how hard they’re playing and how much purpose they play with,” Byrd said. “They fight hard not to give you any good shots, and when you’ve got a shot blocker at the back of that, then you might drive it to the middle, but you’re going to end up shooting a 10-foot floater or end up getting [the shot] changed and blocked.”
Belmont starting guards Taylor Barnette and Dylan Windler went a combined 2-of-15. Forward Evan Bradds, who twice led the NCAA in field goal percentage, was 4-of-12.
Some Tech fans were enticed by Pastner’s offer to buy student tickets, but all of them are buying the Jackets because they’ve bought in big-time themselves.
“To get 17 home wins, based on where we started back in April on a major rebuild job, to be able to do that in year one is a direct reflection of our crowd,” Pastner said. “They have willed us to victories this year, and once again [Sunday] they were fantastic.
“I am so proud to have been associated with them, and this team has just continued to get better and better and better.”
Stephens couldn’t agree more.
“Who knows where this team will go? Who knows where the Georgia Tech program will go?” he said. “I think it’s on an upward slope, and I’m excited.”