Georgia Tech forward Quinton Stephens came to his post-game interview Sunday with his white jersey stained with blood. It turned out he had opened a cut on a finger at the end of the Yellow Jackets’ 71-57 second-round win in the NIT over Belmont at McCamish Pavilion.
“I had nowhere else to (wipe the blood),” said Stephens, who, perhaps ironically, whose teammates voted him the best dressed player in a video played at halftime Sunday. “But I see it as symbolism, just go out blood, sweat and tears, whatever you want to call it. There was definitely a lot of that. I felt a lot of emotions with this team, and I couldn’t ask for a better coach, better team. I’m just having a lot of fun, and I’m grateful.”
Barring unforeseen circumstances, Stephens will accept his diploma for his business administration degree in May in graduation exercises at McCamish. Sunday’s game was a valedictory of its own, as Stephens played perhaps the best game of his career in his final game at McCamish, an opportunity extended through Tech playing in the NIT and the bracket falling the right way.
The significance was not lost on Stephens from the start. As the pep band played the national anthem, Stephens said, “I’m just thanking God for the opportunity to play here again.”
Stephens came out firing and didn’t relent. He knocked down two 3-pointers in the first eight minutes of the game, the second of which gave the Jackets an early 11-8 lead and helped give his team some momentum after a slow start.
He closed the half with a steal that led to a Tadric Jackson 3-pointer and then scored on a layup off a steal by guard Josh Heath to send the Jackets to halftime up 30-26.
Stephens turned it up in the second half, making seven of nine from the field, including a 3-pointer, for 15 points to go with four rebounds, four assists, one steal and no turnovers. He scored on jumpers, in the open court and going to the basket in the half court.
His final line: a career-high 23 points, eight rebounds, four assists, two steals, no turnovers. Coach Josh Pastner expressed his appreciation again for his captain after the game. Stephens played a perimeter role in his first three seasons, but became a “stretch 4” power forward this season, playing closer to the basket and embracing a more physical style. He went into Sunday’s game ninth in the ACC in rebounding at 7.7 rebounds per game.
“He bleeds Georgia Tech, and literally bled (Saturday), but he laid the foundation for what we’re trying to build,” Pastner said. “What I would tell you is it’s a real direct correlation on how well he played and what he’s meant to this program. For him to finish out like he did, I’m so happy for him. I love him dearly.”
Stephens was similarly contemplative.
“I think what I did here was what I needed to do,” he said. “Everything really lined up with this team, I think. The personnel, the new coach, the energy of coach Pastner and then just the seniors that we have here really wanted to buy in. Everyone just came into new roles and they embraced it. Who knows where this team will go? Who knows where the Georgia Tech program will go? I think it’s on the upward slope, and I’m excited.”
At game’s end, Stephens and fellow seniors Corey Heyward and Rand Rowland kissed the Cremins Court hardwood as their final good-bye. He had meant to include Heath, but, Stephens said, Heath ran off before he could corral him.
Stephens’ career will end either Tuesday against Ole Miss or in New York next week. He admitted he wanted to play Georgia in the second round before Belmont upset the Bulldogs. He also wanted to play Syracuse, but Mississippi knocked out the Orange in the second round. But, the Belmont win over Georgia meant one final game at home, a game that he’ll remember for a while.
“I’m really grateful,” Stephens said. “I love McCamish Pavilion.”
‘A typical Tech kid’ plays his final home game for Jackets: A profile of Stephens ahead of Tech’s senior-night game against Pittsburgh