James Banks confidently hit on jump hooks and connected with cutters to the basket. Moses Wright cleared defensive rebounds and put down emphatic dunks. Jose Alvarado handled N.C. State’s defensive pressure for 40 minutes and, on the game’s deciding play, was both swift and patient.
Georgia Tech scored a significant win Wednesday night, punching a hole in N.C. State’s NCAA tournament chances with a 63-61 win at PNC Arena in the Yellow Jackets’ final regular season game of the season. They seized it in the final moments, with Tech down 61-60. After an N.C. State 3-pointer with 6.1 seconds left in regulation, Alvarado took the inbounds pass and raced upcourt before drawing the defense and dishing off to Banks in the lane for a dunk and a foul with 1.4 seconds left.
“If I had a layup, I could go for the layup,” Alvarado said. “I had to run the play. The dribble up was very good, I got full speed, and I just made a play that I saw and it went the right way.”
It may be that, at the end of his third year, coach Josh Pastner’s vision for the Jackets to lift off in the fourth and fifth years of his tenure is starting to take shape.
“I feel good because we ended (the regular season) the right way,” Pastner told the AJC. “We’ve had to fight and scrap to get to this point, and again, we’re playing a lot of young guys. And we’re getting better.”
After losing seven ACC games in a row, the Jackets finished the regular season with three wins in the last five, although the other two wins were at home against two other bottom-tier opponents (Pittsburgh and Boston College). But Wednesday’s win was achieved on the home court of a team fighting to stay in NCAA tournament contention, and obtained through functional offense, the Jackets’ typically challenging defense and clutch playmaking.
“We’ve taken some good steps the last two games, and we’ve won two games (where) we’ve had to find a way against very good teams in crunch time and late games, and we had to kind of find a way to get it out and we did that,” Pastner said.
The Wolfpack were off their game, particularly in shooting 8-for-35 from 3-point range (22.9 percent), but the Jackets played a part by throwing off N.C. State’s rhythm with their 1-3-1 zone.
The road win could be seen as confirmation of the progress that the Jackets have made even as they’ll finish the regular season 14-17 overall and 6-12 in the ACC. Tech, which lost its best player in guard Josh Okogie and its best defender and big man in Ben Lammers, had struggles throughout the ACC schedule. For a stretch, scoring 60 points became an unreachable summit.
But in the closing games, Alvarado has broken out of a shooting slump, Banks has been consistently impactful and Wright is seizing on the potential that has teased Tech coaches for much of his first two seasons. They were the linchpins of Wednesday’s win, with Alvarado playing all 40 minutes, controlling the tempo and turning the ball over only twice, Banks scoring 19 points on 8-for-8 shooting with nine rebounds, five blocks and three assists and Wright contributing 18 points with eight rebounds and two blocks.
“Coming in here to play a very good team, we’re just trying to fight,” Alvarado said. “Like coach says, we keep pushing up, improving, improving, improving. That’s what we’re doing.”
Wednesday, Tech trailed 33-28 at the half because, while it shot 60 percent from the field, it turned the ball over 12 times. In the second half, the Jackets turned the ball over four times, and took advantage of the increased scoring chances. They took the lead at 42-40 at the 11:33 mark on a floater by guard Michael Devoe and built it up to 52-44 at the 8:07 mark when Alvarado sped through an N.C. State press and scored with an and-one layup.
Tech continued to stave off the Wolfpack in the final minutes. When N.C. State hit a 3-pointer, scored three points on free throws and then hit another 3-pointer in successive possessions starting at the 4:58 mark, Banks found Khalid Moore and Alvarado on backdoor cuts and then Wright scored on a dunk on an assist from Devoe. But N.C. State finally caught the Jackets with 6.1 seconds remaining when guard Torin Dorin’s 3-point try was true for a 61-60 lead, setting up Banks’ game-winning dunk.
“Once I got the ball, the only thing in my mind was finish,” Banks said. “That was it – finish.”
N.C. State inbounded with 1.4 seconds left, and C.J. Bryce’s desperation 3-point try for the win at the buzzer was off target.
Wright continued his late-season tear. He has three double-figure scoring games in the past four games and, relying more on shots in the paint, has shot 24-for-40 (60 percent) from the field in those games. Prior to that, he was shooting 40.2 percent for the season. He was quite happy to put on a show at PNC Arena, given that he grew up in Raleigh.
“It was just knowing that I live, like, 10 minutes away from here,” Wright said. “I always dreamed of playing here. So now this dream came true and we got the win, so it’s big for me.”
Practically since his hire, Pastner has preached his plan to “get old and stay old,” to win by developing players over the course of their careers and reaping the rewards when they’re juniors and seniors. His compulsiveness in sticking to such talking points can be irksome, and at times the plan has seemed questionable, particularly as Alvarado flailed through a 10-for-59 shooting skid during the Jackets’ seven-game losing streak. And Pastner is nowhere near out of the woods yet, as the 2019 signing class has yet to firm up and the “stud” recruit he so covets remains elusive. Also, the team’s record, despite the good feeling generated by the two wins, is still, as noted, 14-17.
But wins like the overtime victory over Boston College Sunday and Wednesday’s thriller make the end goal of an NCAA tournament berth (and, indeed, repeated berths) at least seem more plausible. Wednesday, 96 percent of the team’s minutes were logged by Jackets who will be on the team next year and 78 percent by team members who have at least two more years of eligibility.
Before then, Tech will have the weekend off, and then play Tuesday in the opening round of the ACC tournament. The Jackets will be somewhere between the 10th and 12th seed. The 10th seed and a matchup with the No. 15 seed (either Pitt or Notre Dame) seem most likely.
But before that, the Jackets were off to raid a nearby Sheetz gas station on the way to the airport to claim spoils of victory in the form of snacks. It is apparently the new tradition for road wins, observed earlier in the season after the win at Syracuse.
Sodium and sugar were the prizes as Wednesday crept into Thursday. By showing mettle and savvy, the Jackets demonstrated that they’re getting closer to a point where more meaningful rewards will be at stake.
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