The loud party sounds that have surrounded Georgia Tech’s basketball team for several weeks now have been a welcome contrast to the dirge that followed the program for the better part of a decade. It’s like Josh Pastner walked into an junkyard, turned the key on an old rusted Chevy and it started.
“I really think we can get back to where we were, knocking on the door every year as one of those premier programs,” Tech athletic director Todd Stansbury said Sunday night.
At this point, nobody is going to debate him.
On a night when McCamish Pavilion rocked again like the old Thrillerdome, in a season when the Yellow Jackets weren’t expected to compete in most ACC games let alone win many (or any), they left another conference opponent with a Hall of Fame coach stunned and on the losing end of the final score.
It happened. Again. This time it was Syracuse. The Jackets won 71-65. Jim Boeheim exited the court in an even a worse mood than his usual miserable self.
There are two weeks left before the ACC tournament and Tech has a better chance than any Division I college basketball program in the state to make the NCAA tournament. If you had predicted this before the season, you would have been committed.
“This is nothing short of amazing. It’s a modern miracle,” said Pastner, the first-year miracle worker.
Tech is now 16-11 overall and 7-7 in ACC. It hasn’t finished .500 since the 2006-07 season. There’s a possibility the Jackets can make it to the NCAA tournament without winning the conference tourney, although they still need a solid finish.
Welcome to Neverland.
Tech commemorated the 1990 Final Four team, which was led by Kenny Anderson, Dennis Scott and Brian Oliver, who were known as, “Lethal Weapon 3.”
Most would agree: This incarnation of the Jackets doesn’t even include a “Lethal Weapon 1.” Hasn’t mattered.
“We have to be near-perfect in execution, energy and effort and at times today we were perfect,” said Pastner. “Whether we’re playing for the ACC title, or for not being in last place, or anything in between, we understand who we are. Nothing’s changed. It’s really about us. If we’re not perfect in those three areas, its hard.”
Stansbury, the newish athletic director, was an assistant in Tech’s administration at the time of the 1990 Final Four run. “I actually have signed original posters from when I was here before,” he said. “I’ve kept those posters through every move I’ve made. My wife is like, ‘Why are you keeping those posters? Why do they keep moving with us?’”
The lack of star quality to this team is part of what makes this story so cool. But Tech got huge games from center Ben Lammers (23 points, seven rebounds) and guard Tadric Jackson (20), and the team shot 47.3 percent from the floor. Lammers and Quinton Stephens (seven points, eight assists) each played 40 minutes.
Stephens on the lack of rest: “I d0n’t think any of us are trying to conserve energy.”
Tech led 51-38 with nine minutes remaining. They couldn’t exit without some drama. Syracuse trimmed it to 67-65 with 56 seconds left. The Jackets were coming undone. But they got a break when Syracuse’s Tyler Roberson was called for an offensive foul on an illegal screen when Jackson smacked into him with 16 seconds left. It was a debatable call but ultimately decided the game, as Tech sealed it on free throws
Pastner: “It was the right call.”
Boeheim: “I don’t talk about calls.”
The campus arena rocked again. Tech has upset three top 15 opponents — North Carolina, Florida State and Notre Dame. To say this was unexpected would be an understatement.
Stansbury’s expectations were as low as anybody’s. When he was hired, he said, “I told Josh, ‘Hey I get it, I know where we’re at.’ Now I’m telling him, ‘You better enjoy this because it will never be this much fun again.’”
Under former Tech coach Bobby Cremins, who was in attendance Sunday, the Jackets went to 10 NCAA tournaments in a span of 12 seasons (1984-85 to 1995-96), reached five Sweet 16s, two Elite Eights and even the hallowed ground of the 1990 Final Four (before losing in the semifinals to UNLV, which went on to blow out Duke by 30 points in the title game).
Those in the 20s or younger are free to Google for confirmation.
The thirst for a contender on the Flats is clear. The Syracuse game was the team’s third home sellout of the season. The autograph line before the game in the concourse for Anderson, Scott and Oliver extended past several sections.
The fact it has been 26 years since that Final Four run made it a strange night for a commemoration, but Stansbury, who said he had nothing to do with the scheduling, laughed and said, “Timing is everything.
“As a guy who’s been gone for so long and then came back, the vibe right now reminds me of what it was like when Cremins was here,” he said. “It reminds me of the old Thrillerdome.”
The sounds have been long overdue.