It was just days before COVID-19 shut down the world of sports, and most of the world, in general. On a tear, Georgia Tech finished the 2019-20 season by winning six of its final seven games. The Yellow Jackets even won their last two, against Pittsburgh and at Clemson, with the knowledge that they would not play in the ACC Tournament, which could have gotten them a shot at the NCAA Tournament. The games were played days after the school withdrew its appeal of the NCAA’s postseason ban for impermissible-benefits violations, deciding to accept the penalty in order to move forward without it hanging over the team.
But the team still celebrated in its Littlejohn Coliseum locker room, emptying water bottles on coach Josh Pastner, after rallying to beat the Tigers to win 65-62 on March 6. The Jackets finished at 17-14 overall and 11-9 in the ACC, their first winning league record since the 2004 season.
It was a novel and joyful experience for forward Moses Wright, as he recalled Monday after his selection as ACC player of the year. In his only season of varsity basketball in high school in Raleigh, N.C., Wright’s team had a losing record and didn’t make it to the state tournament. Then the Jackets were 13-19 and 14-18 in his first two seasons. Finally, a winning record.
“It was just a great feeling then,” Wright said. “It was like, ‘Wow, this is how it feels to win.’ But we didn’t have a postseason last year, so I was like, ‘Gosh, first time having an above-.500 record and don’t have a postseason.’ But this time we have one, so it’s like, we’ve just got to keep winning. I just love this feeling.”
Holed up in Greensboro, N.C., since their win Friday night at Wake Forest, the Jackets will have their chance to keep winning and to extend their momentous season Thursday in the ACC Tournament. After earning the No. 4 seed with an 11-6 league record – its highest seed since 2004 – Tech will play No. 13-seed Miami in a quarterfinal matchup at approximately 2:30 p.m. at the Greensboro Coliseum. On Wednesday, the Hurricanes upset No. 5-seed Clemson 67-64 to win their second game in as many days. Miami became the first 13th seed to reach the quarterfinals in tournament history.
In the teams’ only regular-season meeting, Tech hammered an injury-depleted Miami team 87-60 on Feb. 20 in Coral Gables, Fla. That set a Tech team record for largest margin of victory in an ACC road game.
As the No. 4 seed – Tech’s first time higher than No. 9 since 2010, the last time the team advanced to the NCAA Tournament – the Jackets earned a double bye, enabling them to rest and prepare through the first two rounds of the event. They step into the ring with a six-game winning streak.
“We’re all in the mindset that we’re coming here to win, coming to get an ACC championship ring,” Wright said. “And then going to Indianapolis and getting an NCAA ring. That’s why we’re all here. We don’t have any mindset of any losing at all. We’re all coming to battle.”
It is a venture into a new realm. In the past three seasons, Tech’s postseason experience amounts to first-round losses at the ACC Tournament in 2018 and 2019. (The postseason ban kept the Jackets out of the ACC tournament last year, which ultimately was canceled midway through because of COVID-19.) For that matter, Pastner is 0-3 at the ACC Tournament.
“I’ve been here four years, and I haven’t won one (game), so that’s something I need to work on,” guard Jose Alvarado said.
The Jackets’ most recent experience with fresh territory was a bit bumpy. After Pastner had told players Friday that if they beat Wake Forest that night they would secure a spot in the NCAA Tournament, Tech came out and turned the ball over nine times in the first 14 minutes before settling down and winning 75-63.
“I feel like guys were kind of tight when we were in the game, feeling a little bit of a pressure game,” guard Michael Devoe said after the game. “But then we started to get in our comfort zone, and we started playing the way we’re supposed to be playing.”
Pastner believes the team will play more freely with the NCAA bid apparently locked up. It will help, too, that the Jackets should be healthier, notably Alvarado (leg), forward Khalid Moore (hip) and guard Bubba Parham (knee), who have been able to rest.
“I thought we were very tight on Friday vs. Wake Forest because of what was at stake,” Pastner said. “We all felt the pressure on our shoulders. I think we’ll play a little more free – and not freer where it’s loose – maybe it’s not every ounce of pressure is on you every single dribble.”
Pastner did share one particular concern in an interview Wednesday with the AJC, that the first time that players will be able to shoot on the rims at the Greensboro Coliseum will be when they take the floor for pregame warmups Thursday after the first quarterfinal game of the day, Virginia vs. Syracuse. (Should the Jackets beat Miami, they would play the winner of that game in a Friday night semifinal.)
“That’d be my only thing, is we haven’t gotten in the gym to shoot,” Pastner said. “Other than that, we’ll have to go play, and I think our guys will play well. We know it’s new territory for the team because they haven’t been in this position, but I think they’ll play well and they’ll be ready to play.”
However ready they are, the Jackets are three games from the Jackets’ first ACC tournament championship since 1993 and fourth overall.
“If we won the tournament, it’d be incredible,” Pastner said. “Obviously, it would be just incredible. It’d be absolutely awesome. Right now, I’d just be happy to win the first game.”
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