On a riser in a near-empty Carrier Dome, the Golden family of Powder Springs enjoyed a brief family reunion about 800 miles northeast of their Cobb County home.
As dome workers clanged away, taking down temporary bleachers and pulling up the basketball court, Georgia Tech guard Trae Golden, his parents Robert and Carolyn, his sister Ryan and a friend shared in the glow of the Yellow Jackets’ biggest win of the season, their 67-62 upset of No. 7 Syracuse on Tuesday night.
Robert and Carolyn flew up from Atlanta that day, forced to race to the game after they were re-routed to Rochester, N.Y., about 90 miles away. Ryan drove about 4 1/2 hours from Dartmouth College in New Hampshire, where she is a grad student. They saw Trae play 32 minutes against Syracuse’s pressure defense with no turnovers and seal the win by going 6-for-6 from the free-throw line in the final 35 seconds.
Golden, who transferred to Tech for his senior season last summer to be closer to his ailing father after three seasons at Tennessee, was named to the academic All-ACC team earlier in the day.
After Carolyn finished snapping pictures on her phone of the dome — “I’ll never be back here again,” she said — the Goldens shared hugs and said their good-byes. Trae told his parents he would come see them Wednesday morning after he woke up in Atlanta.
“It makes it that much better just knowing that they could be here today and support me,” said Golden, as he walked to the team bus. He said that before his free throws, he gained calm from seeing his father in the stands. “It was just a great day.”
It would be difficult to describe it any other way for the Jackets, a shining trophy in a season that has been thwarted by injuries and costly lapses. It was the biggest win in coach Brian Gregory’s tenure and a reward for four years of sweat for seniors Daniel Miller, Kammeon Holsey and Jason Morris, who is out for the season with a foot injury and watched from the bench. Tech, though, now faces the challenge of granting the game additional significance.
A year ago Thursday, Tech pulled off a similarly improbable upset, sneaking past then-No. 6 Miami on the road in a 71-69 victory. The Jackets couldn’t back it up. Dragging at the end of the season, they lost at Boston College in the regular-season finale after giving up a 10-point lead in the second half. Five days later in the opening round of the ACC tournament, Eagles guard Olivier Hanlan closed out Tech’s season by leading his team back from a 26-13 deficit with a sensational 41-point game that included 8-for-10 shooting from 3-point range.
Following Tuesday’s game, Gregory and players made it clear that they could put the game in perspective.
Gregory acknowledged that the win was bigger than the one over Miami, but in the next breath said, “but you know me, I want to make sure we’re ready to play on Saturday and build this momentum heading into the tournament.”
Tech will close out the regular season against Virginia Tech at McCamish Pavilion, the final home game for the seniors. Nothing would drain the enthusiasm over the Syracuse upset than a loss to the Hokies, 9-20 and ranked No. 223 in the NCAA’s most recent RPI ratings.
It would not be beyond the Jackets, who barely pulled out wins over Boston College (No. 175). It has been the vexing nature of this season, the seeming inability to play a full game with the type of focus and execution that Tech showed at the Carrier Dome.
“It feels good,” Miller said of the win, “but just knowing at the same time we can always play this good (is) a little disappointing, but hopefully we can capitalize on this win and keep going.”
Minutes later, Miller’s teammate Carter practically repeated his sentiment, an echo of their fierce double-post partnership (a combined 27 points, 15 rebounds, eight assists and eight blocks) against the Orange.
“It feels good,” Carter said. “Very good to get a win. It just makes me think about the games that we lost. We could have won those easier than we won this one.”
With some luck and better execution, Tech could easily be 17-13 and closing in on an NIT berth, a worthy accomplishment for this group, instead of 14-16. While the team’s improvement has been noticeable, particularly in Miller, Carter and backup guard Corey Heyward, aggravating losses have been the theme.
Games often have been close with eight minutes left, Carter said, “and we end up losing. Either we blow the game right there and they go up by 12, or we end up losing by two or three points. Stuff like that. … We feel like we can play with anybody. It’s just finishing. Tonight, we finished. That’s the difference.”
An NIT berth is unlikely barring a deep run in Greensboro, N.C. and perhaps not even then. On Thursday, senior associate athletic director Ryan Bamford said discussions with athletic director Mike Bobinski and Gregory about possibly playing in the College Basketball Invitational, a tournament a notch below the NIT, likely would wait until after Saturday’s game. Last March, then-acting athletic director Paul Griffin said it was school policy to compete in only the NCAA and NIT tournaments.
Tech’s season may be Saturday’s game and however far the Jackets can get in Greensboro. If the standings were to hold as they were before Wednesday’s Duke-Wake Forest game, Tech would play the Demon Deacons in a 12-vs.-13 game Wednesday. The winner would get No. 5 seed Pittsburgh on Thursday.
A year ago after the Miami win, “we didn’t finish the job to make it into a tournament,” Carter said, “so this year we’ve got to keep pushing to win the next game, get some good tournament wins and hopefully we can get in some postseason (tournament), make it a good season.”