The day could have scarcely gone better for Georgia Tech in its final home game of the season. The Yellow Jackets enjoyed a sizable crowd, were lifted by a career game from their senior captain, moved the ball with selflessness and kept a one-of-a-kind season alive for at least one more game.
Tech gave one of its best performances of the season, defeating Belmont 71-57 in a second-round NIT matchup Sunday afternoon at McCamish Pavilion. The Jackets will next play Mississippi on Tuesday night in Oxford, Miss., for the right to play in the NIT semifinals in New York’s Madison Square Garden.
The Jackets’ first 23 baskets were produced by assists, an extremely unusual demonstration of team offense. It delighted the crowd of 7,176 that gathered to support one last time a team that has delighted fans with its effort and expectation-crushing performance. Tech (19-15) won its 17th home game, setting a school record for home wins in a season. After beating Georgia in the first round of the NIT, Belmont (23-7) was undone by 17 turnovers.
“Fun team to watch,” Belmont coach Rick Byrd said. “Tremendous atmosphere, golly. We love to play in the NIT, but sometimes places don’t get as excited about that as they ought to and this place was excited about at NIT game and it was a great atmosphere.”
Five observations from the game:
Where the game was won
Center Ben Lammers and guard Josh Okogie were at the heart of a 13-2 run to open the second half that expanded a four-point halftime lead to 43-28. Okogie thwarted Belmont by blocking a shot at the rim, poking the ball away on help defense, blocking a layup in transition and winning a rebound and then assisting Lammers on two baskets on offense.
Lammers scored six points in the run and fed guard Tadric Jackson for a dunk. Notably, Tech continued to surge after Byrd called time to slow the Jackets, tacking on an 11-0 run to extend the lead to 54-31 at the 11:17 mark.
Okogie had 15 points, eight rebounds, five assists, two blocks, two steals and no turnovers.
“I haven’t really seen anyone with a motor like that,” Lammers said of Okogie. “He just runs around going crazy.”
Quinton Stephens had a farewell game to remember — a career-high 23 points on 10-for-17 shooting (3 for 7 from 3-point range), eight rebounds, four assists, two steals and no turnovers. He made two of his 3-pointers in the first eight minutes of the game, fueling the crowd and helping the Jackets gain their footing. With a minute remaining in possibly the best game of his career, Stephens was taken out to a standing ovation.
“I’m really just feeling very grateful, honestly,” Stephens said.
Stephens, who set the Tech record for most career games in the first-round win over Indiana by playing in his 131st game, kissed the Cremins Court hardwood after the game with fellow seniors Corey Heyward and Rand Rowland.
“For him to finish out like he did, I’m so happy for him,” coach Josh Pastner said. “I love him dearly.”
Tech’s length and pressure threw off Belmont, which turned the ball over 17 times, 4 1/2 more than the Bruins’ season average. The Jackets were active with their hands, deflecting 29 balls. That led to 11 steals, which was Tech’s most since the North Carolina game in the ACC opener and the second most for the season. Lammers was particularly effective reading Belmont, coming up with a career-high four steals.
“Live-ball turnovers killed us,” Byrd said. “It was totally the difference in the game.”
Tech scored 27 points off turnovers.
Lammers didn’t have any blocks, but challenged a number of shots, often using his reach to challenge Belmont 3-point shots from the corners. Belmont came into the game leading Division I in 2-point field-goal percentage at 62 percent, according to teamrankings.com, but was 10 for 30 against the Jackets (33.3 percent). One of the most prolific 3-point shooting teams in the country, the Bruins were 11 for 33 beyond the arc, not enough to influence the game.
Sharing the ball
Tech finished with 23 assists on 26 field goals. According to sports-reference.com, there have been only four teams besides Tech this season that have accumulated 23 or more assists on as few as 26 baskets.
Jackson might have made the pass of the game, leading the break and slipping a bounce pass between two Belmont defenders to Okogie, who took it to the basket for an uncontested dunk.
“I think we were having fun moving the ball,” Stephens said. “The whole team was really just in rhythm.”
Fans were treated to free doughnuts, courtesy of Pastner and Krispy Kreme. Pastner bought 150 dozen glazed doughnuts (costing about $1,500) and the Ponce de Leon Avenue location of Krispy Kreme matched with 150 dozen of its own. More than 700 Tech students and guests took advantage of Pastner’s offer to buy tickets for students ($4 each) and one guest each ($15).