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#TGW: The Thrillerdome Returns

Jan. 29, 2017

By Matt Winkeljohn | The Good Word

– For all the joy on the court and in the stands Saturday afternoon, when Josh Okogie’s sprinting, buzzer-beating layup sent Georgia Tech players, coaches and fans into frenzy as the Yellow Jackets edged No. 12/14 Notre Dame 62-60, the re-birth of “The Thrillerdome” has been about more than any one moment.

That was the Jackets’ third momentous home win this season and the second in four days, following upsets of No. 9 North Carolina and No. 6 Florida State, which began the week tied for first place in the ACC with Notre Dame.

No wonder McCamish Pavilion was sold out and rocking.

Tech is for real, a meaningful basketball entity again, and the Jackets (13-8, 5-4 ACC) have achieved relevance for the first time in years through a series of moments threaded together by a collective passion that has rarely ebbed.

There’s a warm and fuzzy quilt being stitched together by frenetic first-year head coach Josh Pastner and, some would say – or would’ve before the season – his band of misfits.

To be halfway through their ACC schedule and tied for sixth place in the conference – fifth if Louisville should fall today to N.C. State – these Jackets are driving into the hearts of Tech fans and staking out their own wing.

Measured against the notion of being picked before the season by ACC media to finish 14th in the league, Tech has been superb, like it often was when coach Bobby Cremins ran the show in the 1980s and ‘90s in Alexander Memorial Coliseum.

So, to see Pastner pump his fists in the air several times and seek out Cremins near courtside as his players jumped all over each other and McCamish Pavilion roared was to go back in time and fast-forward at once.

This, and that – the glorious buzz derived from following so many of Cremins’ electric teams – can happen again. It’s been a while, and it feels good.

“Well, first of all coach Cremins … what he’s done here, his name’s on the court,” Pastner said when asked about tracking down his famed predecessor. “What I would tell you is the guy is such a good guy, such a nice man.

“He text-messaged me and said, ‘Coach, do you think it would be OK if I came to practice? Coach, do you mind if you could get me two tickets to a game, or who’s your secretary, or your assistant? I’ll call.’

“Coach Cremins, your name is on the court. If you wanna come be coach, and I’ll slide over to the assistant coach, I’ll do it. Your name’s on the court. So, you invented the Thrillerdome.”

Saturday was a thriller.

Notre Dame led by 10 in the first half, and then trailed 35-31 by halftime.

The signature play in a 15-2 Tech run came when senior Quinton Stephens hustled from behind to block a fast break layup try by Notre Dame’s Matt Ryan, pinning the shot against the backboard.

Junior Ben Lammers gathered the rebound, but ultimately the ball hit the back of a teammate heading up-court, and Stephens found himself off-balance while trying to retrieve it near mid-court. He didn’t go all the way down, yet was compelled to reach down for the rolling ball and, while stumbling, hike it backward between his legs to a teammate.

Moments later, junior Tadric Jackson scored to pull the Jackets within 23-20 with 7:41 left in the half.

Jackson was just about the only sub to see action, and he was rather large.

The junior guard scored seven points in that stretch, would go on to pocket a career- and game-high 25, and come up rather big again at the very end.

To that point, Okogie hadn’t scored, and the Jackets’ leading scorer would muster eight points on the day.

“You stay ready. I waited my turn,” Jackson said. “We pick each other up.”

The Irish (17-5, 6-3) scored the first six points of the second half, and for a while their zones flummoxed Tech.

Tech, though, did what it does. The Jackets dug in.

Notre Dame hit just 12-of-31 shots in the second half, no surprise considering that Georgia Tech entered the game No. 1 in the ACC in field goal defense (39.6 percent) in league games, and No. 2 in blocked shots (5.5).

Lammers went on to finish with 15 points, 10 rebounds and three blocked shots, the same number as Stephens, who added 13 rebounds.

Georgia Tech won the game inside the 3-point line, on both ends of the floor.

Out-scored by one at the free throw line and by nine from beyond the arc, the Jackets were plus-12 inside of it.

They made 22-of-38 two-point shots (57.9 percent) to Notre Dame’s 16-of-40 (40 percent). Jackson hit 3-of-6 3-pointers, and 8-of-11 from inside the arc, several of them astoundingly athletic.

“It was hard for us to get into an offensive rhythm, because you couldn’t get anything around the basket because of Lammers and Stephens,” said Notre Dame coach Mike Brey. “Their shot-blocking really changes the game … We worked like heck to get 60 points today. Obviously, Jackson was fabulous.”

Jackson’s last points, on a jumper with 5:15 left in the game, gave Tech a 60-55 lead. The Jackets, though, wouldn’t score for another 5:14 plus.

When Okogie missed two free throws with 35 seconds left, Notre Dame rebounded and did not call time out.

Guard Matt Farrell slipped around a high screen and tried to drive the lane. Lammers stepped forward to cut off his action, and Tech senior guard Josh Heath – who had a game-high eight assists – challenged Farrell’s 10-foot jumper in the lane with seven seconds left.

It missed, falling off the weak side of the rim to Jackson.

Pastner’s favorite preaching points seem to be about the importance of guard rebounding, and playing with passion to make up for offensive deficiencies.

“It’s all on energy and effort,” he said. “What is energy? Energy is about making multiple effort plays, first to the floor, winning 50-50 balls . . . “

Here, it all happened.

Okogie vacated the lane and took off up the right side.

Jackson dribbled up court, and rather than heave a 65-footer, noted his racing teammate.

“I saw Josh O. sprinting so hard, and I had no choice but to get it to him. It was a good thing that coach didn’t call a timeout,” he said. “To be honest, all I see was the top of his body and I couldn’t see his legs because he was running so fast.”

Just past the top of the key, Jackson hopped in the air and fired a two-handed pass to Okogie, who sped up upon receipt.

“That burst that Josh O. had to get to the basket, it was like Usain Bolt,” Pastner said.

After avoiding a Notre Dame defender who swiped at the ball, Okogie took one dribble, elevated, and laid the ball off glass. It fell through with less than a second remaining.

“I had to get to the goal fast,” he said. “I didn’t really look at [the clock] because it would’ve slowed me down a little bit.”

The Jackets have sped up.

“It was a great week,” Pastner said. “To have two elite teams come in here, and the fans … let me just say this: I told our guys they had earned the right to have a sellout crowd that was all Georgia Tech. It wasn’t half and half . . .

“It’s good for Georgia Tech, the fans, the media, the recruits to see the vision we’re trying to do and the long term of the program.”


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