There is increasingly less reason to respond to Georgia Tech wins with confusion or bemusement.
Tech soundly defeated NC State on Sunday night, an 86-76 result in which the Yellow Jackets handled a team that was in a bit of a desperate state. Winners already over three teams with NCAA tournament aspirations – Virginia Commonwealth, North Carolina and Clemson – Tech notched a fourth with its win in PNC Arena.
Tech (11-6 overall, 3-2 ACC) showed better effort than the Wolfpack, challenged them with tough defense was at its offensive peak, gathering a season-high 24 assists. They have not been 3-2 after five games in ACC play since the 2009-10 season, the last time they went to the NCAA tournament. NC State (12-6, 1-4) has lost three games in a row and lost at home for the first time this season.
“We’ll let them keep sleeping on us a little bit, but we’re just going to stay aggressive,” forward Quinton Stephens said.
In a game featuring two of the best freshmen in the ACC, Tech guard Josh Okogie cranked out 27 points with no turnovers. NC State point guard Dennis Smith Jr., the ACC’s leader in assists and steals, went for a career-high 31.
“Josh O. was terrific (Sunday) offensively, obviously,” Pastner said.
Where the game was won
The Jackets began to put the game away with a 7-0 run early in the second half that put them up 54-47 and caused Wolfpack coach Mark Gottfried to burn a timeout.
Guard Tadric Jackson started the run with a layup in traffic. Aggressively looking for his shot, Stephens hit a 3 on a feed from guard Josh Heath, who ended the night with a career-high 10 assists. After center Ben Lammers blocked Terry Henderson’s shot in the lane, the Jackets ran a break that concluded with guard Corey Heyward making a contested layup at the 14:48 mark, his first basket since the Georgia game on Dec. 20.
The Jackets led the rest of the way.
The Jackets played their best offensive game of the season, finishing with a season-high for points and shooting 49.2 percent from the field. The rate was well above their average in their first four ACC games, 39.3 percent. They dropped 10 3-pointers on 16 tries, by far their best performance of the season and an absurd departure from the 22.2 percent they had shot in four ACC games. The 24 assists are an accomplishment. The Jackets did not have a 24-assist game against an ACC opponent in the five-season tenure of coach Brian Gregory.
They put the game away by scoring baskets on nine consecutive possessions in the second half, playing with poise and working NC State for open shots. Seven of the baskets were assisted.
“It felt great seeing our offense kind of come together,” Okogie said.
It was the same team that has at times struggled to crack 60, one that Pastner joked that it was necessary “to thank the basketball gods” if it could hit 70 points.
NC State fizzles
The Wolfpack continued to confound. A team widely expected to make the NCAA Tournament, NC State has dropped three games in a row, the past two against the teams picked to finish 14th (Tech) and 15th (Boston College) in the ACC.
About all the Wolfpack had going for them Sunday was Smith, whose 31 points were supplemented by eight rebounds and six assists, two blocks and two steals. The Wolfpack shot 40.6 percent from the field, increasing familiar territory for a team that has also scored 85 or more points eight times.
After the game, Gottfried said that “We’ve got to decide if we want to play some defense.”
Big game from Stephens
A game after scoring a season-high 16 against Clemson, Stephens aggressively looked for his shot again and finished with 22 points with 7-for-14 shooting from the field. For Stephens, who has struggled throughout his career with consistency, it’s his highest two-game total of his career by 10 points. He was 4-for-8 from 3-point range, as many makes as he’d had in Tech’s past five games.
Tech has depended upon Stephens for scoring punch, struggling when he either hasn’t shot well or aggressively looked to score. Going into the game, Tech was 8-2 when he scored 10 or more, 2-4 when he was held to nine or fewer.
After one of his 3-pointers in the second half, a frustrated Wolfpack fan shouted at the team that “You’d better get on 12,” referring to Stephens, who came into the game shooting 27.9 percent from 3-point range.
Tech stays on the road with a game at Virginia Tech and Saturday at Virginia.