Josh Heath has been a big brother, the first teammate Okogie will call when he runs into trouble.
“That’s the biggest one,” Okogie said of the former walk-on, who was put on scholarship in January. “Rand, he’s that guy that, whatever you need, he’ll do it. I’ll be like, Rand, can you come to the gym with me and help me with some free throws? He’ll be like, Sure.”
Beloved by their teammates and appreciated and respected by their coaches, Tech’s six seniors have played the past four games in the NIT unsure if it would be their final time in a Yellow Jackets uniform. There will be no question Thursday night at Madison Square Garden. The end of the line has come. For most of the six, possibly all, it will be their last organized game.
At the end of a season no one saw coming, Tech will play TCU for the NIT championship, the final stage after hammering Cal State Bakersfield 76-61 in a Tuesday semifinal. It’s not the NCAA Tournament berth that the Jackets hoped for, and it’s for a title that many might dismiss as second-rate or even irrelevant, but one that still comes with a trophy, rings and a lifetime of memories.
For a team that, by ESPN’s accounting, was the least experienced in Division I at season’s start, it would be a worthy accomplishment. And to end a career with a championship?
“It would be incredible,” Heath said. “It would be huge.”
For both those seniors and the teammates they’ve led, that prize provides all the motivation they’ll need against the Horned Frogs, who gained their spot in the final with a 68-53 semifinals knockout of UCF.
“They deserve it,” Okogie said. “Since the season started, they’ve set the tempo, they’ve listened to Coach (Josh Pastner) since he got here, and if they can listen, we can listen. We were kind of able to follow their footsteps and they set a great example both on and off the court.”
In his final days as a Tech athlete, Stephens continued to exert his leadership. At a gathering for media Monday, Stephens noticed the championship trophy. He told Okogie to get a good look, a directive that had its intended effect.
“It’s one thing to look at it,” Okogie said. “It’s (another) thing to have it. It gave me motivation.”
Stephens has never won a championship at any level outside of AAU play. At the Marist School, he said, “We played against Miller Grove, who won it pretty much every time.” Stephens took a picture of the picture and let his imagination run.
“Once I saw the trophy, I started envisioning myself holding it up, yelling, just realizing, ‘Hey, we did it,’” Stephens said.
Pastner has extolled the team’s seniors for the way they accepted and embraced the regime change when Brian Gregory was dismissed at the end of last season and he was hired to be their coach for their final season. Their willingness to accept the change and lead teammates through it has been a critical factor in the development of the chemistry and effort-filled play that has helped enable a team expected to be among the weaker power-conference teams in the country to run through four NIT opponents to reach the final.
It has been a two-week gallop in which the Jackets have played near their peak, executing in synchronicity, at times dominating their competition.
At this point, the underdog patina has long worn away. Leaving New York without a trophy would cut deep, particularly for the freshmen, sophomores and juniors who want to send out their elders on top.
“It’s just a brotherly love thing,” guard Tadric Jackson said. “They’ve been here for four years, never really won anything like that or achieved anything like that in college. So it’ll be a great thing for the seniors to go out with a ring, an NIT championship. It would be fantastic. They can just go back 10 years, 20 years later and tell their kids, ‘I won a championship in college.’ It’s going to mean a lot.”
A bushel full of memories has been collected already this season — the road win over VCU, the stunning New Year’s Eve defeat of North Carolina, the ambush of Florida State, the buzzer-beater against Notre Dame, the raucous environment at McCamish Pavilion for the win over Syracuse, the momentum-building run through the NIT. There’s room for one more.
“Like I said, we’ve had a great year so far, and we’re just going to go out there and play,” Stephens said. “We’re going to leave it all on the court, put ourselves in position to win a championship and from there, that’s all you can really ask, is for the opportunity.”