In Georgia Tech’s final game, emotions catch up to Josh Pastner

Georgia Tech players gather in a huddle in the locker room following the Yellow Jackets' win over Clemson March 7, 2020, in Clemson, S.C. (Ken Sugiura/AJC)
Georgia Tech players gather in a huddle in the locker room following the Yellow Jackets' win over Clemson March 7, 2020, in Clemson, S.C. (Ken Sugiura/AJC)

The visiting locker room at Clemson’s Littlejohn Coliseum is not an opulent space. Gray carpeting, gray lockers, purple chairs and ceiling tiles and lighting like you’d find in a school classroom. On this night, it was the setting for a celebration whose circumstances probably were unlike any it had ever witnessed previously.

Upon his entry after Georgia Tech’s 65-62 win over the Tigers on Friday night, coach Josh Pastner was ambushed by his Tech players, who emptied water bottles on him as they screamed and jumped.

“Let me just tell you this – seven kills, guys,” Pastner said, his voice hoarse. He held up a laminated sheet marking each “kill” – the team’s jargon for three consecutive defensive possessions with no points allowed. The Yellow Jackets’ goal is seven per game. Down 59-50 with five minutes to play, Tech notched two kills to mount a 15-3 game-closing run.

Pastner’s voice caught with emotion, and his players, circled around him, clapped and whooped. It was only getting started.

“Listen, listen – I’m probably going to break down,” he said. Then, as he praised his staff, he nearly did.

“You guys played your tails off, all of you,” Pastner continued in a rasp, again losing his composure. “I love you guys.”

When he called for them to bring it in, the cheers erupted, and the team tightened in around Pastner, filling the room with its joyful yelling.

“Family on three! Family on three!” center James Banks instructed. “One, two, three…”

“FAMILY!” came the hearty response.

His jacket and dress shirt drenched, Pastner circled the locker room, hugging all of his players and telling them he loved them. Last was Banks, who picked up his coach off the floor in their embrace.

“We love him as a person, we love him as a coach,” Banks said. “Some guys want to play more, some guys want the rock in their hands more, but it’s never in question his integrity and who he is as a person.”

Later on, assistant coach Eric Reveno, a veteran of a number of several NCAA tournament wins as an assistant at Stanford, described the euphoria and feeling of connection in the room as the same as a tournament win.

“It might not stay as much – like a rock in the pond, the ripple effect isn’t as great,” Reveno said. “But in that locker room, at that moment, that’s that feeling.”

Not a crier

The funny thing about Friday night, and what made it unusual – the unrestrained jubilation belonged to a team whose season will go no further than this regular-season finale, a game that drew little attention outside of the teams’ fan bases. Because of athletic director Todd Stansbury’s decision to withdraw the school’s appeal of a postseason ban for NCAA recruiting violations, the Jackets concluded their season with their final regular-season game.

On the surface, it was an odd time for Pastner to break down in front of his team, the first time he had ever done so with any team, he said.

“I didn’t even cry at my wedding, for crying out loud,” Pastner said later in a postgame interview.

But for the players, coaches and staff whooping and hugging in that locker room, the moment was precious – the reward for season-long improvement, perseverance and the willingness to keep fighting when, in some ways, the motivation to do so had been removed.

“God bless those young men in the locker room and God bless our staff,” Pastner said.

Georgia Tech coach Josh Pastner confers with guard Jose Alvarado in a tight contest with Dukeon Wednesday, January 8, 2020, in Atlanta.  Curtis Compton ccompton@ajc.com
Georgia Tech coach Josh Pastner confers with guard Jose Alvarado in a tight contest with Dukeon Wednesday, January 8, 2020, in Atlanta. Curtis Compton ccompton@ajc.com

Credit: Curtis Compton

Credit: Curtis Compton

How Pastner’s tenure at Tech, now at the end of its fourth season, turns out remains an unknown. With the ban, Tech’s NCAA tournament drought extended into its 10th season, fourth longest among power-conference teams, and it appears one of the three ahead of Tech (Rutgers) is about to come off the list. But he and his team will have the 2019-20 season to hold dear for reasons that did not have much of a ripple effect, but with value all the same.

“You’re trying to move the needle, move it forward in the program,” Pastner said. “And to have some validation of it, to see the win and to have five (ACC) road wins and just the way we ended this week was really special.”

Turning the season around

On Jan. 22, a 68-64 loss at then-No. 6 Louisville dropped the Jackets to 8-11, a third consecutive loss in which they competed but ultimately failed. The season, begun with NCAA tournament intentions, was not working out as expected. One of the 11 losses was a 65-47 home loss Dec. 18 to Ball State, which led by 30 points before emptying its bench.

An ankle injury to point guard Jose Alvarado in November had been costly. He had returned, just as Pastner changed the offense after nine games to better fit the roster. The Jackets were playing their typically effective defense and becoming more efficient in scoring, but the team’s NCAA tournament hopes (then on the table) were close to dead.

As Pastner continued to assert that the team was better than its record, the Jackets continued to push forward.

“Over the stretch, it’s easy to have a little give-in, and they never gave in,” Pastner said.

Guard Jordan Usher found his stride after becoming eligible in December (his first game was a dreadful loss to Ball State) following his transfer from USC. Forward Moses Wright emerged as a candidate for ACC most improved player with his effort on the glass and scoring touch near the basket.

Alvarado continued to offer his passionate leadership and developed into a scoring weapon on dribble drives. Guard Michael Devoe fought through a foot injury and gave the Jackets consistent scoring, finishing the season averaging 16.2 points in his last 10 games. Role players Bubba Parham, Evan Cole and Khalid Moore gave defense and scoring spurts. Holding opponents under 60 points at home had become the norm.

Compared with that loss to Boise State, Devoe said, “It’s a totally different team.”

One last obstacle

The Jackets had won four of five when Stansbury made the decision Monday to accept the postseason ban this year to eliminate the possibility of losing the appeal and then facing the ban in 2020-21.

The team was deflated, but responded. Two days later, in a game for which Pitt coach Jeff Capel wondered how motivated the Jackets would be given that they knew they had no postseason to play for, the Jackets handled the Panthers with perhaps their best interior defensive play of the season.

“They weren’t happy about the decision, but they’re resilient,” team trainer Richard Stewart said. “They know how to fight.”

That left Friday night at Littlejohn Coliseum. The Jackets had lost on the road to Clemson a perplexing 14 times in a row, a longer losing streak than they have ever endured at Duke’s Cameron Indoor Stadium.

After taking a 39-28 halftime lead, the Jackets lost control of the game with a flurry of turnovers, falling behind 59-50 with five minutes to go. The late-season charge – winning five of six before Friday to clinch a .500 record in league play, something not accomplished since the 2006-07 season – might have to suffice. Not for Banks, though, playing in his final college game.

“I said (to the team), ‘Hey, man, we’re down nine, not 90,’” Banks said. “There’s five minutes left in the game. It’s not even crazy (to come back). Nine points is really easy.”

From there, Tech held Clemson to 1-for-9 shooting from the field, and the Jackets climbed back to tie the score at 62-62 with 1:37 left on a Banks putback. Devoe’s floater from the ACC logo in the lane put the Jackets ahead 64-62 with 15.7 seconds left, the last two of his game-high 20 points. Cole successfully challenged Clemson’s 3-point tries on its two subsequent possessions.

The Georgia Tech bench reacts as seldom-used teammate Niko Broadway makes a reverse layup for a basket in the final minutes of a 82-54 victory over Morehouse on Tuesday, January 28, 2020, in Atlanta.   Curtis Compton ccompton@ajc.com
The Georgia Tech bench reacts as seldom-used teammate Niko Broadway makes a reverse layup for a basket in the final minutes of a 82-54 victory over Morehouse on Tuesday, January 28, 2020, in Atlanta. Curtis Compton ccompton@ajc.com

Credit: Curtis Compton

Credit: Curtis Compton

The win clinched numerous accomplishments. At 11-9 in the ACC, Tech earned its first winning record in ACC play since the 2003-04 season (9-7), when the Jackets reached the national championship game. The Jackets will do no worse than a tie for fifth place in the league, their highest since a tie for fourth in 2004-05, when the league had 11 teams, as opposed to 15 now. The losing streak at Littlejohn is over.

“I feel like we’re rolling at the right time,” Banks said. “This is a time when you want your team to get hot. It’s just disappointing knowing that we were able to get hot at the right time and have a bunch of guys playing at a very high level and not be able to see what this team can do and how far we can go.”

Stansbury’s loyalty

Pastner’s raw emotions were fueled, too, by the weight of the off-court trials that he has faced with the NCAA investigation and resulting violations, and a tawdry legal tangle with former friend Ron Bell. It should not be said that Pastner had nothing to do with it – Stansbury admonished Pastner for permitting Bell to get close with team members and for not immediately alerting the compliance staff when he became aware of Bell’s attempts to recruit a Memphis player – but the NCAA also did not find him guilty of any violations.

In that midst, Stansbury stood beside Pastner, even as the on-court results in years two and three did little to encourage Jackets fans.

“This is the best thing I can describe for Todd Stansbury,” Pastner said. “If he was standing next to me and a bullet was coming or a train, I would push him out of the way and step in and take it. That’s how I feel about him.”

Pastner said Friday that the last time that he had become so emotional about a team was in his first season, at a video session on the eve of the 2017 NIT Championship game, knowing a team that he had connected so well with was about to take the floor for the final time. (Pastner held it together until the meeting was over, he said, at which point he broke down.)

Perhaps there was a congruence in Pastner’s getting choked up Friday night. Similarities can be drawn between Pastner’s first team and his fourth. Just like the 2017 team finished strong and offered hope for the future, so has the one that closed its season with six wins among the final seven, winning the down-to-the-wire games that consistently eluded them earlier in the season.

His second team, which followed the NIT run, was hammered by injuries and played under the cloud of the NCAA investigation and the Bell controversy. It limped to 12-19.

Tech and Pastner get another opportunity to push through next season. In perhaps the most adorable metaphor ever, Pastner’s three daughters and the three children of Tech assistant athletic director Leah Thomas formed a spirit tunnel near the Littlejohn service entrance as the team walked from the locker room to the team bus.

They lined up three on a side and joined hands to form an archway that players and coached bent down and wiggled through.

“Daddy, come do it, it’s your turn,” 4-year-old Harper Pastner beckoned as her father walked up the ramp alongside assistant coach Anthony Wilkins.

The coach, changed out of his soaked game attire and back in his favored outfit of a polo shirt and sweatpants, could not refuse, bending down to squeeze through the happy gauntlet. It was a passage, perhaps, from one season to the next.

The 2019-20 season had been over for about an hour. Pastner’s mind already was on his fifth season.

“You want to get to the NCAA tournament,” Pastner said after his voyage through the spirit tunnel. “That’s the next step.”

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