After Josh Okogie went for 26 points Saturday, scoring every which way, to lead Georgia Tech to a 75-63 upset of No. 9 North Carolina, it would’ve been easy to look back at comments made a couple of months ago by Tar Heels coach Roy Williams and snicker.
He suggested at the ACC preseason meetings that tough times lay ahead for Tech and first-year coach Josh Pastner.
In Williams’ defense, the Yellow Jackets play defense — their defensive quotient in the RPI ranks No. 33 nationally — although nobody could have foreseen Tech (9-4, 1-0 ACC) throttling one of the nation’s more potent offenses.
Plus, Okogie woke up after his coach dropped the velvet hammer on him.
“As a team, we play better when I’m aggressive because … I’m putting the defense on their heels,” Okogie said after making 7 of 14 shots and a whopping 11 of 13 free throws. “(Pastner) just told me that I’ve got to get back to being aggressive.”
Indeed, but who’da thunk North Carolina (12-3, 0-1) would shoot 33 percent after averaging 48.6? Who’d have predicted UNC turning it over 20 times, or Tech ripping 15 steals? Who planned for the Heels to score 26 fewer points than their 89.6 average, which was fourth-highest in the land?
Not even Pastner.
“If you saw our team at our first practice in April … I told (assistant athletics director and former Tech player) Marvin (Lewis), ‘I don’t know if we can get to even five wins,’” he said.
The Jackets have busted their tails since, especially Saturday as Okogie led the way in a sight both familiar and foreign.
The 6-foot-4 swing player began the season with 18 points in a win over Tennessee Tech and kept it up. When he set a Tech freshman scoring record of 38 points against Tulane on Nov. 26, his coach spoke of him as a future All-ACC player.
Then, the force fell from Okogie’s game.
His scoring average slipped from 19 points through five games to 9.1 over the next seven. His rebounding numbers dipped from 5.6 to 2.6. He shot 31.1 percent over those games, and all but stopped attacking the rim.
After Tech’s ugly win Wednesday over North Carolina A&T, Pastner conferenced with his linchpin.
“I had a truth telling,” the coach recalled. “I don’t curse and I won’t curse. Doesn’t mean I can’t think it, but I will tell you the honest truth and how I feel about you. No personal attacks. Just if you’re not playing well, I’m not into sugarcoating.”
Okogie: “He was telling me that I became a little too passive, and we’re at our best when I’m giving it my all as far as energy. He says ‘rear end’ a lot. … He does have a good way of getting his point across without using cuss words.”
There was no foul language after Tech snapped a seven-game losing streak to UNC.
Center Ben Lammers scored 11 points, grabbed 11 rebounds, and tied point guard Justin Moore for a team-high four assists. Senior Quinton Stephens added 11 points, nine rebounds, four steals and three blocked shots. Senior Josh Heath was big off the bench, scoring 15 points, 11 in the second half, and making all six of his free throws.
Tech’s zones, particularly the 1-3-1, discouraged the Tar Heels from attacking the basket, and the home team built a 20-14 edge in points in the paint before halftime.
Still, the Jackets trailed 32-29 because North Carolina had a 29-14 rebounding advantage.
Pastner broke out his hammer again at halftime, and Tech outrebounded UNC 23-15 in the second half.
Justin Moore, a freshman guard, rang up all six of his rebounds — four defensive — after halftime.
“Our coach really emphasizes guards sticking their noses in, and grabbing a rebound or hitting somebody and making sure their guys can’t get a rebound,” said Heath.
Most important, the Jackets made 25 of 28 free throws after intermission.
“We shoot 5-of-26 from 3, and they shoot 33 free throws to our 14,” Williams said. “That’s basically the game right there because they were more aggressive.”
UNC’s leading scorer, Justin Jackson, led the Tar Heels with 16 points, but missed all five of his 3-pointers.
The Jackets took the lead for good, 46-45, on a pair of Okogie free throws with 11:59 left. They ran in front the rest of the way, the crowning moment an Okogie 3-point shot from the left corner for a 66-57 edge.
Good thing he has a tough rear end.
“To his credit, he came back and was a high-level, big-time player today … so you have to give him credit for his bounce back,” Pastner said. “He took it like a man, didn’t sulk or play victim. He said, ‘Yes sir; you’re right.’ For our team’s sake, he’s got to be like that every night. We’re at a different level.”