The seeds for a most unlikely victory were planted not long after Georgia Tech was thrashed by Tennessee Saturday in Knoxville, Tenn. Coach Josh Pastner gave guard Tadric Jackson a simple message after Jackson had given the Yellow Jackets 10 uninspiring minutes in their 81-58 loss to the Volunteers.
“I won’t play you anymore if you won’t play hard,” Pastner said he told Jackson.
Tuesday night in Richmond, Va., after Tech had flown in to play VCU, Jackson came to Pastner’s hotel room with a message of his own.
“He said, ‘My legs are exhausted, Coach,’” Pastner said.
Pastner asked why. Jackson’s response, according to the coach: “I’ve never practiced so hard in my life as I have the past three days.”
Weary of leg but tuned to his coach’s frequency, Jackson was the difference-maker for the Jackets in their 76-73 overtime shocker over the Rams Wednesday night. Playing with the intensity and energy that Pastner has sought to elicit from him since his hire, Jackson scored a career-high 24 points on 9-for-18 shooting from the field. Arguably the most talented player on the roster showed it for the Jackets, who were 15-point underdogs to VCU.
“Tadric Jackson had his three best practices of his year, of his life,” Pastner said. “He played so hard. How he practiced is how he played (Wednesday).”
The Jackets (5-3) returned home late Wednesday with some pretty impressive cargo – a win over a team that has been to the NCAA tournament six consecutive seasons and has made its home court a near-impregnable fortress. Wednesday’s game was the 87th consecutive sellout of the Siegel Center, and the Rams (6-3) were 74-12 in the first 86. Make it 74-13.
It is without question the biggest win of Pastner’s eight-game tenure, and, one game after a dispiriting defeat in Knoxville, one that might prompt a reconsideration of the Jackets’ potential for the season.
“To win on the road, in the early stages of the rebuilding process is a huge, huge win,” Pastner said. “And on national television against a very well-coached team, an NCAA tournament team, a program that won 86 percent of their home games the last six seasons. That’s a huge win in year one of a major rebuilding job with the most inexperienced team in all of college basketball.”
The last factoid is one that Pastner likes to trot out whenever he can, the data provided from an ESPN.com report. It’s part of his rarely ceasing effort to suppress expectations, which were never high anyway. From last year’s team, the Jackets lost their top four scorers, their top three rebounders and 67 percent of their minutes played.
Tech’s past two games prior to VCU didn’t do much to lift anyone’s hopes. In their first two games against power-conference opponents, the Jackets lost to Penn State and then Tennessee by shooting 35 percent from the field and 32 percent on shots inside the arc. After the debacle in Knoxville, Pastner accepted responsibility for the loss, saying he backed off the practice intensity level to save players’ legs and the low-energy performance was the result. He said he would never do it again “as long as I’m head coach at Georgia Tech.”
Upon return from Tennessee, “We came back after it,” Pastner said. “Sunday, Monday, Tuesday, had high-energy practices like we had been, and that’s how we played.”
The Jackets held VCU to 41.7 percent shooting from the field while themselves hitting 47.5 percent, piling up 30 points in the paint.
“We kept attacking the basket,” Pastner said.
Despite starting two freshman guards (Justin Moore and Josh Okogie) and a third guard who was only let off the bench for 22 minutes last season (Corey Heyward), the Jackets kept their mettle when VCU made a furious charge in the final seven minutes of regulation. Turning up their defensive pressure and feeding off the raucous home crowd, the Rams revealed their superiority, but could not chase off the Jackets.
A VCU jumper that cut the lead to 59-54 was answered in kind by forward Quinton Stephens. Guard Josh Heath stuck a jumper to stop a 5-0 mini-run. When the Rams finally drew even at 63 with 4:31 to play, Jackson pushed back with a 3-pointer. Jackson broke another tie, at 68, with a drive with 75 seconds remaining.
“Offensively, we ran our stuff, we got open shots when we needed to get open shots,” Pastner said. “We found a way.”
In overtime, the Jackets limited VCU to three points in 10 possessions, forcing three turnovers. The defensive play enabled Tech’s six overtime points, courtesy of a Jackson 3-pointer, a Heath bucket and one free throw by Stephens, to stand up.
“We did a great job on out-of-bounds defense, especially late, which we’ve worked on a lot,” Pastner said.
Besides Jackson’s 24 points, accomplished without a turnover, center Ben Lammers scored 16 with eight rebounds in 42 minutes, a taxing work rate for a 6-foot-10 post player. Stephens contributed 12 points with eight rebounds with a team-high three assists. Heyward made the basket of the night, a swished 3-pointer from three-quarter court at the end of the first half.
One win does not make a season, of course. Whether this game proves a turning point, a happy outlier or something in between can only be revealed in time. As coincidence would have it, the Jackets also beat VCU early in coach Brian Gregory’s first season before finishing 11-20. At the least, though, it demonstrates that the Jackets should get their chances at wins if they can play with the energy that Pastner has tried to summon.
For his part, Pastner said he wasn’t surprised.
“Besides the Tennessee game, we’ve improved in every area,” he said. “We’ve just got to keep getting better.”