Let’s be honest. Not since Jan. 28, the day Georgia Tech beat Notre Dame on Josh Okogie’s last-second layup, the group that Josh Pastner pronounced “a good team” was never the same. This isn’t so much a criticism as a statement of fact. Eight days before the Super Bowl, the Yellow Jackets had topped out.
More honesty: The Tech we saw these past five weeks was the Tech we should have seen all season, but Pastner and his men refused to accept mediocrity. They beat really good teams. They made us notice them. They just weren’t good enough to hold up over a full season in the nation’s best conference. No disgrace there.
The Jackets’ last NCAA hopes were dashed here Tuesday night. In an odd bit of symmetry, the team that was picked to finish 14th in a 15-team league was eliminated from the ACC Tournament by the team that actually finished 14th. Tech lost 61-59 in what was a pretty lousy — spirited but lousy — game.
The Jackets didn’t lead until 13:41 remained. They nosed ahead by four and seemed to have stopped everything Pittsburgh could do — and Pitt, which was 4-14 in ACC play, can’t do much — but then Tech went eight pointless possessions. The Panthers pulled ahead by five, saw the Jackets rally to nose back ahead, then went up by seven. Over a span of 10 minutes and 54 seconds, the Jackets were outscored 24-10.
“They hit those back-to-back 3s,” Pastner said, speaking of the treys made by Pitt’s Chris Jones and Jonathan Milligan. “Basketball’s a make-or-miss game, and 3-point shots can change the game.”
Especially when Tech has such trouble putting the ball in the basket. The Jackets were next-to-last among ACC in scoring. They were last in field-goal percentage and 3-point percentage, next-to-last in free-throw percentage. For this game, they made 35.5 percent of their shots, 22.2 percent of their treys, 64.7 percent of their foul shots.
Pastner: “We have to get shooting. The amount of packing-in that teams did on us — I’ve never seen that.”
Afterward, Pastner mounted a tepid argument for NCAA inclusion: “Eight (conference) wins, you should be automatically locked in for the NCAA Tournament. I’ve been in other leagues, and it’s not like this. This is the closest thing to the NBA without being the NBA.”
Even as he was speaking, you could tell his heart wasn’t in it. No at-large invitation has been bestowed on a 15-loss team. No team with an RPI above 71 has made it as an at-large, and Tech’s figures to be around 100 after this loss. Two more wins — flip the North Carolina State game at home and Virginia Tech on the road — and Pastner would have had a case. But not at 17-15.
In the stunning victories over North Carolina, Florida State and Notre Dame, Tech was as Pastner said it was — a good team. But that team was functioning at maximum capacity, and no team does that forever.
The Jackets still played their hardest on every possession. (I’m living and aching proof. Inside the final 20 seconds, Quinton Stephens jumped over the press table and landed on this correspondent’s neck in the successful attempt to save the ball.) But energy can’t carry a team to the top of a league this good. It got the Jackets to 11th place, which was better than anybody expected, but this season always had a ceiling.”
Pastner again: “We have gotten every ounce of energy and effort out of them. Quinton has given — there’s not one ounce more than Quinton could give. I just kept hoping we had one more push in us. We milked everything we could out of the guys … We ran out of gas.”
That Notre Dame game of Jan. 28 marked the last time that Tech held a halftime lead against an ACC opponent. The Jackets were 5-4 in league play after beating the Irish. They were 3-6 thereafter. The ACC caught up with them, as you figured it would. What nobody figured is that it would take that long to happen.
Said Pastner: “We scheduled (Division II) Tusculum in the middle of the conference season just because I thought we might lose 11 straight games and I wanted to stop the bleeding.”
For Tech to have been a part of bubble talk was itself a massive victory. I figured the Jackets would do well to win 10 games, and I wasn’t in the minority. But Pastner did what coaches are paid to do — he got the most from what he had. With his changing defenses, he kept putting a team that had no business winning in position to win.
Said Pitt coach Kevin Stallings: “I don’t think you look great too often against Georgia Tech. They scrum the game up. That’s the beauty in how they play.”
That was an apt description. A team expected to be the motliest of crews developed a beauty about it — a beauty in its defense, its effort, its refusal to bow to conspicuous limitations. This Tech season will not end in the Big Dance, but it darn sure had its shining moments.