Senior Banks helps Jackets build on late-season charge, beat Pittsburgh

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On senior night, Georgia Tech played with energy in the final home game of the season. The end result was a 73-57 win, Tech’s fifth in the past six games.(Courtesy of ACC)

James Banks made his last home game count, and so did his team. Taking the McCamish Pavilion court for his final time at Georgia Tech, Banks was a defensive force. He challenged shots, pulled down rebounds and generally made offense a trial for Pittsburgh.

Likewise, did his Yellow Jackets teammates. Two days after learning that they will not be participating in the postseason as athletic director Todd Stansbury decided to accept the NCAA's postseason ban after initially appealing it, Tech played with energy and fed off a small but enthusiastic crowd Wednesday night in the final home game of the season. The end result was a 73-57 win, Tech's fifth in the past six games.

» STEVE HUMMER: Tech showed its character in win

“I cannot give you enough accolades and words to these young men on how they handled themselves — Monday after the decision, Tuesday and then how they played (Wednesday),” coach Josh Pastner said. “They deserve every single ounce of credit, and my assistant coaches and my staff have done an incredible job.”

The win assured the Jackets (16-14 overall, 10-9 ACC) of their first .500 season in league play since 2006-07. Tech also won its sixth consecutive league home game, led by point guard Jose Alvarado (game-high 23 points, nine rebounds, five assists) and Banks (two points, nine rebounds, four blocks, four steals). With a win Friday night at Clemson in Tech’s final game of the season, the Jackets will have their first winning season in ACC play since 2003-04, the season that Tech reached the national championship game.

Because of the decision to accept the postseason ban this year rather than appeal it, the season will end there, just as the Jackets seem to be ready to take off, Pastner’s oft-cited plan to “get old and stay old” apparently having finally borne fruit.

“It kind of sucks that we were able to get on the roll this late in the year that it has to stop right now,” Banks said. “But that’s the culmination of guys putting in a bunch of hard work together.”

Playing with their typical high level of effort, the Jackets took charge of the game early and owned an 18-9 lead on a pull-up jumper by forward Khalid Moore midway through the first half. The advantage increased to 30-12 after Alvarado converted a live-ball turnover into a layup at the 3:41 mark.

“(Wednesday), I was interested to see how they would come out, knowing that they can’t go to the postseason,” Pitt coach Jeff Capel said. “Sometimes in that situation, you can have kids that quit. ‘It’s over with, we can’t go (to the postseason), so what does it matter.’ But, I doubt that will happen with Alvarado.”

Indeed, Alvarado was frenetic and effective as normal. Early on, he quashed two Pitt fast breaks as the lone defender and buried a 3-pointer from perhaps 30 feet as the shot clock expired for a 10-4 lead.

Pitt (15-16, 6-14) shot 30.9% from the field in losing its seventh consecutive game. The Panthers converted a season-low 26.8% on 2-point shots (11-for-41). Banks had a great deal to do with that, as he altered several shots near the basket, both defending his man and on help defense. The evidence of his impact was on the shot chart. Pitt was 6-for-21 on layups and dunk attempts, many of those misses a result of Banks altering shots on Pitt drives to the basket.

“I thought James was outstanding (Wednesday),” Pastner said. “I thought he was just really good in everything he did. I thought his motor was excellent. I thought just everything he did was just really, really good.”

“That’s following the game plan,” Banks said. “They have some athletic guys that want to get downhill and they were going to have to out-athlete me at the rim, and (Wednesday) I was just able to be the better athlete.”

For the sixth consecutive ACC home game, the Jackets held their opponent under 60 points.

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Banks, honored before the game with his family along with fellow senior Shembari Phillips, took a final lap around Cremins Court, the team tradition following wins. This time, it was a little different. He shook hands with broadcast announcers Bob Rathbun and Corey Alexander. He gave fist bumps to the scorer’s table crew. He took a leap into a mob of students behind the west baseline, jumping up and down in a mosh pit of sorts. He waved to students and high-fived others. He briefly left the court to go into a tunnel to high five more fans hanging over the railing.

He continued his slow procession down the gauntlet of fans and students along the sideline opposite the benches.

Finally approaching the tunnel to the locker room, he hugged security personnel, posed for a photo with a child, signed an autograph, took another photo and, finally, disappearing into the tunnel, gave away his headband.

“Just seeing those people, those students — my peers — felt that way about me — that meant a lot,” Banks said. “And I really enjoyed that last lap — my mosh pit, smacking hands. A lot of these people, they’ll remember this for all their lives, and so will I. So just having that shared bond, that shared experience, it’s amazing.”

Phillips was given a spot in the starting lineup on senior night, a commonplace occurrence throughout college basketball but, until Wednesday, not a tradition that Pastner had embraced.

But, at his teammates’ behest and given the unusual circumstances of the season, Pastner awarded Phillips a spot in the starting five, with Alvarado offering to come off the bench. Phillips was taken out after only 70 seconds, but came back with 1:14 to play with the game in hand. Forward Moses Wright found him for a 3-pointer, which he knocked down to the delight of his teammates and Tech fans.

In the college basketball world, a late-season game between two ACC teams with records near .500 had little meaning. To the announced crowd of 4,746 at McCamish and particularly to the home team, it carried far more significance.

“I can’t say enough about our guys,” Pastner said. “I just can’t say enough.”