The team that was taken to overtime by Shorter, the team that struggled to beat North Carolina (A&T version, not Chapel Hill) in its final tuneup before what was anticipated to be a series of ACC dismemberings, is one game from a championship.
OK, once again: It’s the NIT. It’s not the NCAA. Go ahead with the jokes.
What does the NIT champion scream? We’re No. 69!
You know what? Jokes don’t apply in this case.
What Georgia Tech is doing this season is something that Indiana and Syracuse and certainly Georgia couldn’t do the past two weeks. The Yellow Jackets are finishing a season the way coaches want their players to finish, not pouting after being excluded from the NCAA field.
“A remarkable journey,” coach Josh Pastner called it. “It’s been a great lesson for me to see it all unfold.”
Another win. That makes 21 for the Jackets, and in this one they never trailed. Tech led Cal State Bakersfield by as much as 19 points and rolled to a relatively easy 76-61 win in the NIT semifinals at Madison Square Garden on Tuesday night.
So for only the third time in history, Tech’s basketball program will play for a postseason championship. The Jackets will face Texas Christian for the NIT Thursday night after the Horned Frogs 68-53 win over Central Florida. The Jackets reached the NCAA title game in 2004 but lost to Connecticut 82-73. They also lost to North Carolina for the 1971 NIT championship.
This shouldn’t be about comparing the NIT with the NCAA. It’s about comparing a team’s achievements against expectations, and Tech has surpassed all projections.
“There’s four college basketball games left — ours and three in the NCAA tournament,” Pastner said. “So for us to be playing in one of those games on national television, it’s a credit to the young men. From where we started to where we are right now, to see how this has unfolded, we’re excited.”
Madison Square Garden is referred to as the “World’s Most Famous Arena.” Maybe so. But not many of the world’s people showed up. There were less than 5,000 people in the building for Tech’s game.
Still, playing on this stage and in this building could have unnerved Tech players, but it didn’t. The Jackets committed only seven turnovers and 13 fouls while holding Bakersfield to 35 percent shooting.
Sometimes, it’s the little things that make a team better. Tech was well-prepared for its opponent’s pressure defense in part because of a suggestion by assistant coach Eric Reveno that players change up their usual routine of going from stretching to passing drills in the past few practices.
“We went straight to five-on-five, full press, going nuts, just to simulate how it would be to start the game,” Pastner said.
“We don’t usually do that,” forward Quinton Stephens said. “I thought that was a pretty cool way to prepare. They come right at you, but we attacked them first.”
The Garden hosted South Carolina’s coronation as an NCAA Final Four team. Then again, it’s also home to the New York Knicks. So if one believes in mojo, Tech could have gone in either direction. But the Jackets were the better team throughout.
They led by 10 points at halftime 36-26 after a running 3-point shot by Tadric Jackson at the buzzer. The lead could’ve been bigger if not for at least four missed layups. (Pastner: “We’ve missed enough layups this year to last not only my lifetime but 10 more.”)
Consecutive baskets by Okogie punctuated a 13-3 run early in the second half, when the lead ballooned to 18 points at 55-37. From that point, the only thing that would derail a trip to the final would be a meltdown. That didn’t happen.
Tech is more than happy to be here. The NIT’s early-round exits include Syracuse, Indiana, California, Houston, Clemson, Ole Miss and, yes, Georgia. So the marquee of this lesser Final Four read like a way-off-Broadway production. Georgia Tech vs. Cal State Bakersfield; TCU vs. Central Florida.
“Some teams aren’t as excited to play, and we’ve made the most of that,” Stephens said. “We realize it’s bigger than just us and this team. We’re trying to get exposure for Georgia Tech and this program.”
Along the way, Okogie has emerged as a star. In four NIT games, against Indiana, Belmont, Ole Miss and Bakersfield, he put up point totals of 24, 15, 26 and 22, respectively. He also had nine rebounds, two steals and two blocks Tuesday.
“He’s just gotten better and better, and he’s playing the best basketball of his freshman year right now,” Pastner said.
Okogie said winning the NIT title “would say a lot about this team and where we came from. Ever since the summer, we worked our butts off day in and day out. Playing for a championship shows how that pays off in the end.”