More from Georgia Tech’s 80-69 loss to No. 9 Duke on Sunday night at McCamish Pavilion. For the “5 observations” story, read here.
For Georgia Tech, the bright spot in the decisive defeat was the surprising play of freshman forwards Moses Wright and Evan Cole. Both played nearly all of the final 17:56 of the second half, during which the Yellow Jackets outscored the Blue Devils 43-29. (Wright tied for the game high in the plus/minus stat, as he was plus-16, same as Duke guard Gary Trent.)
“Both those young guys came in and gave us a great lift,” coach Josh Pastner said.
Pastner put them in for guard Tadric Jackson and center Ben Lammers, he said, because neither senior was producing.
“I took out both (Lammers) and Tadric and told them, ‘Hey, you’re not getting it done for us,’” Pastner said.
Both freshmen played with energy and produced. Cole finished with 10 points on 3-for-7 shooting, including one 3-pointer, with five rebounds, two assists and a block. Wright scored nine points with seven rebounds (three offensive), two assists and two blocks. While the game was out of reach, both helped Tech to play a commendable half of basketball and salvage something on a night when point guard Jose Alvarado was likely lost for the season and the Jackets took their seventh loss in eight games.
“They made big-time plays,” Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said.
Their two most memorable plays were emphatic putback dunks, but both showed more. Cole had a nice defensive possession against Trent after he caught the ball in the corner. Cole closed in on Trent with his hands high in the area, as Pastner constantly urges. Trent drove on him, and Cole stayed enough in front to allow help to come. Trent’s shot was blocked from behind by guard Josh Okogie, and Cole secured the loose ball.
Wright moved well without the ball. After a press break, Cole found him cutting to the basket, where he was fouled, leading to two free throws. After a floater by guard Tadric Jackson fell short, Wright came down the baseline to follow the shot and secured the offensive rebound while getting fouled by Trent.
“I thought Moses and Evan really moved their feet well,” Pastner said.
What does it mean going forward?
They’ll both get playing time in Tech’s next game, Wednesday night against Wake Forest in Winston-Salem, N.C. The rest may be up to them. Both were not a part of the rotation (which was reduced to six after Curtis Haywood’s stress reaction in his shin, and that was before Alvarado’s elbow dislocation on Sunday). Wright had played a total of 19 minutes in ACC games prior to Sunday. Cole had played 20.
Pastner put them on what he calls a redshirt program, in which they (along with center Sylvester Ogbonda and guard Shembari Wright, who is actually sitting out the year as a transfer) do extra skill work and weight lifting in preparation for next season and get more use out of the season.
They’ll continue it, but now they may be contributing.
The challenge for both will be try to maintain what they showed on Sunday. In the non-conference segment of the season, both showed flashes like they did Sunday. Wright actually started four games, highlighted by an 8-for-9 shooting game against Florida A&M in which he added seven rebounds and three steals. In his college debut – against UCLA in Shanghai – Cole was undaunted, hitting a big 3-pointer and scoring six points total. He had six rebounds against Coppin State.
But the reason they fell out of the rotation is that they couldn’t keep it up, not a surprise for freshmen. Forward Abdoulaye Gueye moved past them in the rotation. Sunday was ideal. There was little pressure in terms of the context of the game. Duke players had perhaps eased off the gas.
“I remember when Coach first put (Cole) and Moses in, I held them up and I told them, ‘I don’t care if you shoot 30 times (and) miss 30 times,” Okogie said. “Every time a shot goes up, I want you guys to crash the glass as hard as you can and that’s what they did and they looked really good.”
They showed more Sunday than they had previously, but there’s still holes, obviously. Wright could have blocked out better. Cole didn’t come to the ball for a couple passes that nearly resulted in steals.
If they can play at a level anywhere near what they played at Sunday, their playing time should continue, and that would be a meaningful boost for both players going into the offseason and their sophomore seasons.
“I think it’ll help my confidence,” Cole said. “I think it’ll help me be more comfortable when my number’s called going forward, but I had a good time (Sunday). It was fun.”
Too little, too late
For the fourth time this season in ACC play, Tech’s opponent took a large lead early or midway through the game before the Jackets cut significantly into the lead before losing. The “Peak lead” was the largest lead to that point. Against Louisville and Florida State, Tech fell behind by wider margins after their comebacks.
“Our guys always fight and compete. Even we get down, they awlays finda way to come back and scrap and claw and crawl and fight and kick and find a way to give ourselves a chance to get back into the game,” Pastner said. “The issue is, why we are getting down? Part of that, I would tell you is because it’s a major rebuild job and year two is the hardest.”