The Irish secured the ball after Tech guard Josh Okogie missed two free throws with 35.8 seconds remaining. It was an unexpected result for Okogie, a 77 percent free-throw shooter who has aced just about every test given him thus far in his freshman season. Further, it was one of the poorest games of his young career. Foul trouble limited him to 18 minutes, and he turned the ball over four times. But he responded in a mature manner.
“I stepped up to the line, I missed two,” Okogie said. “After that, I was frustrated, but I decided I can’t let those two free throws make me lose sight of the job at hand, which was to play ‘D’ and get a stop, because it was still a two-possession game.”
Notre Dame coach Mike Brey had guard Matt Farrell hold the ball up top as the clock ran down. With about 12 seconds to go, Irish forward Bonzie Colson set a screen on guard Josh Heath outside the 3-point arc on the left wing, and Farrell cut hard to his right to the middle of the court.
Heath quickly slipped over the top of the screen to recover while center Ben Lammers, who was defending Colson, came up to hedge against Farrell while Colson rolled to the basket. Farrell chose to take on Lammers and, as he recovered, Heath. In the lane, Lammers forced Farrell to dribble laterally away from the basket, and he planted and exploded up for a jumper with eight seconds remaining on the game clock and three on the shot clock.
Heath was able to jump with him and get a hand in his face, a pretty challenging six-footer.
“They really hugged our shooters, so he had to shoot a floater,” Brey said. “It wasn’t a great shot, but it’s one he hits. You like that he had the gumption to take it.”
Brey said it was what he had wanted, to give Farrell a screen up top and make a play. It was similar to a play made by Farrell in a road win at Pitt on New Year’s Eve in the ACC opener. Farrell drove, this time not using a Colson screen, but then slipped and fell as he reached the basket. He managed to pass out to Steve Vasturia, who hit a game-winning 3-pointer.
It also wasn’t unlike the end of Tech’s 62-61 loss to Virginia Tech Jan. 18. In that game, Hokies guard Seth Allen drove on Heath from the left wing with under 20 seconds to play and Virginia Tech down 61-60. Allen rose up left of the lane and hit a shot over the reach of Lammers for what proved to be the game-winner with 15.9 seconds to play.
Saturday, it was a different result for Farrell, Heath and Lammers. Farrell’s shot hit the back of the rim and skipped away.
Georgia Tech’s possession
Jackson had been defending guard T.J. Gibbs on the wing but closed down on Colson as he rolled to the basket. (As a result, Gibbs was wide open on the left wing, waving his arms in vain for the ball.) After Farrell's shot went up, Lammers blocked out Colson, and Jackson either slipped under Colson or was nudged under the basket by him. Either way, he turned out to be in the ideal spot to secure the rebound with 5.8 seconds left.
“Just guard rebounding,” Jackson said. “Coach (Josh Pastner) is always on us about guard rebounding. I cracked back on the guard. I looked up at the clock I saw that I had time, like, four seconds on the clock.”
At the same time, Okogie was in the lane and then floated out to the right for an outlet pass before bolting up the court.
“At the end of the play, I was so far away from the ball. When the shot went up, and I saw the clock, I just had to take my chances and try to sprint out and try to beat the clock,” he said. “Luckily, Coach Pastner’s always preaching good things happen when guards rebound, and our guard rebounded, and a good thing happened.”
Jackson took three dribbles up the center of the court, then hopped and, with Farrell challenging, fired a diagonal cross-court pass to Okogie, catching him perfectly in stride. He was perhaps 30 feet from the basket. About 2.1 seconds remained. Gibbs, the guard whom Jackson had left unattended, was backpedaling and pivoted to make a play on Okogie, trying to wrap around to swipe at the ball with his right hand. On this afternoon, he had little chance. As Pastner put it, “that burst, it was like Usain Bolt.”
Said Jackson, “To be honest, all I saw was him, his upper body and I couldn’t see his legs he was running so fast.”
Once Okogie caught the ball, he took one dribble just inside the 3-point arc on wing, took one and a half steps and laid the ball off the glass with textbook form.
“I knew what the time was on the clock before I caught the ball, so when I caught the ball, I just knew that I had to get to the goal fast,” Okogie said. “I didn’t really look at it because that would have slowed me down a little bit.”
The ball was released with about .6 seconds to play. The ball caromed the backboard, bumped twice against the inside of the front rim and fell through.
“As soon as I laid it up, I knew it was going it,” he said. “It kind of looked like it was about to come out, but I was like, it’s going in.”
The red rectangle in the frame of the backboard lit up as the ball dropped through the rim. Notre Dame forward V.J. Beachem, who had led the Irish with 23 points, caught the ball after it fell through the basket. His body language indicated stunned resignation, like that of a man who had just sprinted down an airport concourse only to reach his gate and see his plane pulling away from the jet bridge.
Okogie was grabbed by Jackson and then engulfed by his teammates, hopping up and down. The sellout crowd at McCamish was up for grabs.
Tech assistant coach Darryl LaBarrie's incisive recap:
"I knew they’d do some kind of high ball screen, and Ben Lammers did a great job, and usually, it’s something that he’s not as good at, but he did a great job hedging on ball screens today. So we forced a jump shot, Tadric got a great rebound. I looked up and I saw Josh streaking, which is one of his best attributes, the way he runs the court.
"Tadric made a great decision to throw the ball to him, and I knew Josh, he wasn’t going to be denied. He didn’t have a great game, but he’s probably the epitome of what Georgia Tech basketball is right now. He’s an unbelievable kid, he always wants to do extra work on the court, he always wants to do extra film, so to see him play poorly but then make the big play at the end, I thought it was fitting. It was just a great feeling."
Brey was exceedingly gracious in defeat. The Tech-Notre Dame series has produced a string of tight finishes since the Irish joined the ACC prior to the 2013-14 season. Last year at McCamish, Tech won 63-62 – nearly the same score as Saturday’s game – on Marcus Georges-Hunt’s buzzer-beating drive.
“We’ve had a lot of thrillers in this building since we’ve been in the ACC,” Brey said. “You’ve got to give Tech credit – they made the last great play.”