Final Four revisited: Georgia Tech’s memorable journey to the title game

Georgia Tech's Jarrett Jack (left) and B.J. Elder sit dejected on the bench in the second half of their national championship loss to UConn Monday, April 5, 2004, at the Alamodome in San Antonio.

Georgia Tech's Jarrett Jack (left) and B.J. Elder sit dejected on the bench in the second half of their national championship loss to UConn Monday, April 5, 2004, at the Alamodome in San Antonio.

Twenty years ago, a Georgia Tech men’s basketball team captured the hearts of its fans and exhilarated a city with a run to the 2004 national championship game, played April 5, 2004.

This is the final of a three-part series looking back on that team’s storied run to the Final Four in San Antonio as told by the players, coaches and other members of a team whose success has not since been matched at Tech.

Today’s installment revisits the Yellow Jackets’ NCAA Tournament run which included wins over Nevada and Boston College, respectively, in Milwaukee, Wisc., victories over Nevada and Kansas, respectively, in St. Louis, Mo., a thrilling, last-second win over Oklahoma State at the Final Four in San Antonio, Texas, and a loss to Connecticut in the national title game:

Forward Ismai’il Muhammad: “The intensity. March Madness is special, right? All eyes are on you. The thing that stood out to me was the intensity of the games from the players. The amount of media focus. How many people were at the game, how many people were interviewing you after the game, the magnitude of it all and the fact that no one on our team was too small for the moment. We still had that same confidence that we did when we were playing pick-up ball before the season. That’s how we played our games, even in March Madness.”

Guard B.J. Elder: “That was our first time going through it. You look back, when you get in the tournament, every game is extremely tough. I think that’s kind of what I took from it afterward.”

Guard Marvin Lewis: “If you think about our NCAA Tournament run, and I don’t know the stat specifically, but just about each game was a different leading scorer, or there was a different person that led the charge to get us to victory. That just spoke to the level of talent and also the level of trust we had in one another.”

Coach Paul Hewitt: “We knew (Northern Iowa in the opening round) was gonna run a lot of stuff. We had played them, I think, when I was at Villanova one time. I kind of had an idea of how they were gonna space the floor, but one of the things I thought our team did was we defended well. It’s the NCAA Tournament and we’re a 3 seed and those 3-14 games can be tricky. But we defended and got to the end of the game and were able to get one more stop and got out of there.”

Elder: “Playing that Northern Iowa team and not knowing much about ‘em and having to fight and claw every second - the Boston College game was the same way. I think going through that just gives me some insight that I can pass along and share with our guys once we get there. Don’t take anything for granted. It doesn’t matter if they’re Power 5 or mid-major or whatever. If they’re in the tournament, they’re a good team.”

Radio play-by-play announcer Wes Durham: “They end up playing Boston College and Jarret Jack steals an inbounds pass and dunks the ball to give them the margin to win that game. When Jarret Jack dunks that ball and they win the game in Milwaukee, postgame on radio ends, we go in the locker room and on the screen UAB is beating Kentucky. That they won this game and then Kentucky lost to UAB meant they were gonna go to St. Louis and play Nevada.”

Assistant coach Dean Keener: “We knew we had a chance to win and advance. Didn’t take anything for granted and both games were really close. When we were leaving the arena I remember several of us coaches being like, ‘Man, we got a real chance now here. We’re playing our best basketball. We’re getting ready to get on ride.’ "

Student manager Graham Neff: “There was a little bit of, like, the team didn’t have the energy or appreciation for the achievement of getting to the Sweet Sixteen because there was this mentality of, ‘Hey, we got a lot more work to do.’ So those first couple days in that transition from the first weekend to the second weekend, my recollection was, it was a blend of perspective of we got to play better, we got more games that we can win.”

Durham: “They go to St. Louis and play (Nevada) and B.J. Elder sprains his ankle the first two minutes of the game.”

Hewitt: “Will Bynum came off the bench and played terrific for us. But they didn’t flinch. A lot of teams may have folded, but those guys they kept grinding away. The foundation of our team, the bedrock of our team, was on the defensive end. And we just defended and found a way to make enough baskets.”

Lewis: “The Nevada game where B.J. Elder goes down with an ankle injury, I know many people felt like, ‘OK what are we gonna do? We just lost our leading scorer.’ That was a chance was for another person to shine and it just happened to be me. Having an opportunity to score at a high level, to get some great shots, my teammates were looking for me, but that was another pivotal moment to say that, ‘Next man up, next person up and we can still advance regardless of who’s on the starting five.’ "

Durham: “They’re winning these games and they’re not beating anybody by more than 6-8 points. They beat Nevada and the shot of the night is this baseline drive and scoop by Will Bynum. Bynum hits the scoop, they end up beating Nevada. Then they have to play Kansas who’s the 4 seed. Bill Self’s first year at Kansas. He’s got most of the guys that played for a national championship the year before on his team. And Georgia Tech has to play Kansas in front of like 32-36,000 fans … all of whom are Kansas fans. There may be 1,000 Georgia Tech people in the building. Maybe. The collaborative effort of that entire team is personified, to me, in that win. Jarrett Jack is on fire in the second half and in overtime. Bynum is terrific. And Jarrett Jack ultimately hits the game-clincher in overtime.”

Keener: “It was really a home game for Kansas. If there were 30,000 people there, there was 20,000 Kansas fans or more. We just continued to make plays. Jarret made some plays, Ishma’il made some plays, Bynum made a play. It wasn’t just one person.”

Center Luke Schenscher: “I remember each game was quite close. I think the biggest win was five points before we beat Kansas in overtime by seven or eight in the Elite Eight. In every game it never felt like we had the wins tied up until right at the end of the games. We were playing with a tremendous amount of confidence and just seemed to make the important plays down the stretch that we needed to. A lot of that was due to the competitive spirit of guys like Will Bynum, Jarrett Jack and BJ Elder. But everyone contributed significantly so it’s hard to single out only a few names.”

Muhammad: “Everywhere we went, up until the Final Four, it was pretty much a road game. Someone in that region had a huge following behind them. But honestly, I think it played into our favor. The kind of group that we had, we started the season like, ‘Hey, it’s us against everyone else. Our backs are against the wall because no one believes in us.’ We carried that all the way through, so when we had, essentially, road games playing on other people’s home courts during the tournament it played in our favor because we thrived. We thrived being the underdog. We thrived when people doubted us.

“San Antonio was, honestly, the other side of it. It was so cool to see how much Georgia Tech support was there. It was amazing. You’re walking through the hotel and no matter what time you walked through it was just flooded with Georgia Tech supporters. It was really cool to see how much the Georgia Tech supporters traveled to San Antonio to show that love and support and excitement.”

Schenscher: “I have never experienced anything like that before or since. I tell people we got a glimpse of the life of a rockstar. The crowds at the hotel in San Antonio were phenomenal. We were soaking it all in as a team and we went in there with the advantage of having nothing to lose. We weren’t expected to be there let alone beat Oklahoma State.”

Neff: “I had so many friends that were camping out in front of the Edge Center ticket office waiting for them to open up so they could sell the student booklets and things like that. Everybody just swarmed on San Antonio. The show of the Georgia Tech family in San Antonio leading up to that was as big-time and first-class as it gets. I couldn’t have been more impressed, pumped, excited, all those things for how Georgia Tech went about that weekend in San Antonio.”

Lewis: “Doesn’t get any better. When you think about Georgia Tech and Yellow Jacket nation really infiltrating that city, it had been, what, 14 years (since the 1990 Final Four)? So because of that amount of time, Yellow Jacket nation was truly excited to support us. I remember fans telling me that they had to take planes, trains and automobiles just to get to San Antonio. Tickets were expensive so they just wanted to find any way to get to the game. It was just a memorable moment and one I’ll remember forever.”

Durham: “By staying downtown, the kids got to embrace the event all the way through. In San Antonio they’re kind of like the belle of the ball. It’s Duke, it’s UConn, it’s Oklahoma State and then it’s Georgia Tech.”

Hewitt: “You gotta create some memories, which you do on the court, but also share it with the people that helped you to get you to that point in your life – their families, their friends. Then the other thing is to learn something. We were really fortunate – Mary McElroy was one our administrators. Mary went to the Naval Academy so she knew David Robinson. She set up a tour of David’s school for our team. It was really cool for our guys to meet David Robinson and he gave us a tour of his school and told us some great stories about his time at the Naval Academy and also the San Antonio Spurs. To me, that was one of the best parts of the whole trip, to meet a guy like that and just see what he was doing with his life. He’s such a tremendous role model. It was a great opportunity for our players to meet him.”

Keener: “We stayed right downtown on the Riverwalk. We went out to restaurants that had fans. (Hewitt) trusted the guys. We’re now 25-30 games into the season and he knew we had mature kids that could handle those kind of situations the right way. More than anything I just remember the crowds, the Georgia Tech fanbase. When you’d come down either to go to practice or to the games and to try to get on our bus, from the time when you’d walk out of the elevator, there were thousands of people in the lobby, outside, on the sidewalk just cheering. It was an amazing scene.”

Durham: “(Coach Eddie Sutton) had decided (Oklahoma State) was gonna stay in the hotel until game time. He wanted Oklahoma State locked-in. Next thing you know, Oklahoma State started out tight. Marvis Lewis hit the 3s bang, bang, bang and Georgia Tech got this lead and Oklahoma State was dead on their feet. They had no energy. At the end, everybody has seen the play, Bynum drives off the Schenscher screen. Bynum’s the guy that wins the game.”

Schenscher: “I told Will Bynum I did all the hard work for him on that last play, setting a couple of precisely executed screens to get him open and all he had to do was make an easy layup. But I’m happy for him to take the glory on that one.”

Neff: “I remember the San Antonio local paper and on the front page they had a picture of Schenscher and (UConn forward Emeka) Okafor. It said like, ‘Clash of the Titans’ or something. To see (Schenscher) on this front page as part of the anticipatory matchup I just thought was so awesome. The second thing that I remember most about that day, coming down the from the team meeting rooms through the lobby to load the bus to go to the arena and the lobby was just packed. For me, as a sophomore manager, to be walking through that, growing up a lifelong Georgia Tech fan? That is something that is seared into my head and always will be. It was such a special moment.”

Schenscher: “I remember it being quite tough physically to play on Saturday night and then turn around and play again two days later. And it was unfortunate that BJ Elder had rolled his ankle in the game before and didn’t have a chance to get it right before the championship game. But in the end we were not able to fully execute our game plan and they were too tough for us down the stretch.”

Muhammad: “The reality is … it’s just unfortunate that the injuries got the best of us. Hat’s off to UConn. They won it, they deserved it. If we were healthy, what could have happened? If my knee wasn’t bad, if B.J.’s ankle wasn’t bad, if Luke’s back wasn’t bad, if Jarrett was healthy and 100 percent? Hey, at the end of the season no team is 100 percent. But we definitely had the short end of the stick on injuries. But hat’s off to UConn. They earned it.”

Durham: “I felt like Monday night they had to play as well as they had played all year. Elder gutted it out. They played hard. They were down so bad early, most of America turned off their television. It never felt like Georgia Tech was within striking distance of UConn. Okafor was unbelievable. They just had a really good team. There’s no getting around it.”

Keener: “I believe they had seven guys that ended up playing in the NBA? That was a really, really talented team. It would have been nice to be at full strength, but those were two really, really good teams in a national championship game.”

Hewitt: “I haven’t watched the game. All credit to UConn. Not to take anything away from them – and I’m not. But we were so banged up by the end. (Muhammad’s) knee, his patella tendonitis was really acting up. (Elder) had a high-ankle sprain - I think if that game was played in 2024 he wouldn’t have played. Jarrett Jack wouldn’t have played. Jarrett suffered a concussion very early in that game. We didn’t think like that back then. He got hit in the head and it wasn’t until we got back to the hotel, we were having a meal after the game and he had his head down and said the lights were bothering him. That’s when we realized, ‘This guy’s concussed.’ Again, all credit to UConn. They had a great team. But I know that the team that had created this magical run, that had this great season, that wasn’t the team that played for us on Monday night. And that’s part of sports. That’s the way it is.”

Elder: “We lost. I tell our guys to this day I haven’t watched it. I’ve tried a couple times. I think the furthest that I’ve made it is to the tip and then maybe a few minutes into the first half and then I turn it off.”

Muhammad: “That one’s gonna stay in the archives.”

Lewis: “I’ve never watched the championship game. I won’t watch the championship game. It still hurts. It still hurts, but for me being a senior that year, I’m just really proud of what our team was able to accomplish and, personally, I can say I played in as many games as I possibly could my senior year. That’s a huge accomplishment and we made Yellow Jacket nation very proud.”

Schenscher: “It’s hard to believe it has been 20 years, but the biggest thing I take away from it is the bond I feel I have with all the teammates and staff from sharing that experience with them. I don’t get back to the states too often but it’s great when I do and get to catch up with the guys that I can and reminisce.”

Hewitt: “We will remain bonded forever.”

Part 1: “We got a chance to do something really special here.”

Part 2: “I remember thinking, ‘Geez we are pretty bloody good.’”