Georgia Tech, Josh Pastner feel ‘weight off of our shoulders’

Georgia Tech guard Michael Devoe (0) shoots under defense from Wake Forest forward Ody Oguama, right, during an NCAA college basketball game Friday, March 5, 2021, in Winston-Salem, N.C. (Andrew Dye/The Winston-Salem Journal via AP)

Credit: Andrew Dye

Credit: Andrew Dye

Georgia Tech guard Michael Devoe (0) shoots under defense from Wake Forest forward Ody Oguama, right, during an NCAA college basketball game Friday, March 5, 2021, in Winston-Salem, N.C. (Andrew Dye/The Winston-Salem Journal via AP)

After a five-year journey, a weight has come off Josh Pastner’s shoulders. With a win that may well have clinched Georgia Tech’s spot in the NCAA tournament, perhaps the most significant mission of Pastner’s tenure when he was hired in April 2016 appears to be completed – to get the Yellow Jackets back into the NCAA tournament.

On Friday night, after the Jackets pushed themselves through that pressure to subdue Wake Forest and likely secure a spot in the NCAA tournament field, Pastner said he felt exhaustion more than anything.

“It’s excitement, it’s incredible, just, joy, but it’s almost a relief,” he said. “Like you can breathe. Literally, like you can breathe now. And the weight off of our shoulders – we can now play freely in the conference tournament, knowing that now that we’re playing for seeding in the NCAA tournament. And that’s what we’re trying to do.”

Forward Moses Wright did not hide how much the meaning of Friday night’s game overwhelmed him at the start. Wright is a clear candidate to be Tech’s third ACC player of the year, following Mark Price and Dennis Scott. However, he missed his first two shots and then mishandled a fairly routine pass from guard Jose Alvarado, a mistake that earned Wright a seat on the bench only 4:43 into the game, an abnormally early hook for a player who ranked fifth in minutes played per game going into Friday.

“I was as nervous as crap going into that game,” Wright said.

While Wright had played in the ACC tournament and other big games before, the stakes were never quite like they were Friday. As Pastner saw it and explained to his team, a loss to the Demon Deacons might put the Jackets in a position where, if they then lost their first game in the ACC tournament, it might cost them a spot in the NCAA field.

For a senior-dominated team with no player on the roster that had ever been to the tournament and had made qualifying for it its stated goal, it was a lot of chips on the table.

But, there, on the parquet floor of Wake Forest’s Joel Coliseum, the Jackets believed themselves to be 40 minutes away from achieving childhood dreams.

“I think it started in the beginning of the game, when guys were realizing, Hey, we really need this win to get into the tournament,” guard Michael Devoe said.

Moreover, Tech was playing with three key players – guards Jose Alvarado (leg) Bubba Parham (knee) and forward Khalid Moore (hip) – who had not been practicing of late to nurse injuries.

In days leading to the game, Pastner shared the story of the 1980 U.S. hockey team and its “Miracle on Ice” win over the Soviet Union, and how people forget that the U.S. still had to beat Finland to win the gold medal after beating the Soviets. For Tech, Pastner said, after the emotional win over Duke on Tuesday, Wake Forest was its Finland. Pastner said the pressure was “unbelievable. We all felt it.”

Jittery and tight, the Jackets turned the ball over nine times in the first 14 minutes, a lot for a team that came into the game averaging 11.3 per game, third fewest in the ACC. But Tech found its footing late in the first half, aided by the errant shooting of the Demon Deacons, last in the ACC in field-goal percentage.

The Jackets, aided by a combined 40 second-half points from Devoe, Wright, Alvarado and Jordan Usher on a combined 16-for-22 shooting, brought it home after halftime.

After the game, Pastner lauded his team’s accomplishment. After starting the season with devastating home losses to Georgia State and Mercer – defeats that led Pastner to abandon his plan not to have contact practices in order to limit the risk of having the team be sidelined by contact tracing after a positive COVID-19 test – the Jackets faced a steep uphill climb.

And the incline seemed no less treacherous after the Jackets lost five out of seven games from Jan. 23 to Feb. 12 – to Virginia, Duke, Louisville, Virginia again and Clemson, four of the games by eight points or fewer.

After Tech lost at Clemson on a banked-in 3-pointer by the Tigers’ Nick Honor after the ACC’s leading free-throw shooter (Alvarado) missed a pair of free throws, the Jackets were 9-8. They appeared a team capable of beating any team in the ACC, but with not much on the resume to show for it.

Pastner had his own pressure to cope with. All along since his hire, he had pegged the fifth season as the one when Tech would return to the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2010. This is his best team of his five, and one likely to be broken up after the season by graduation. At 9-8 after the loss at Littlejohn Coliseum, a tournament bid was still possible, though hardly likely.

However, that was the last time Tech has lost, as the Jackets have strung together six consecutive wins, the longest by a Tech team against ACC competition since 1996. In a season in which consistency has been evasive because of pauses and last-minute changes, only Virginia has had a longer win streak against ACC competition than Tech, and the Cavaliers weren’t doing so with their legacy on the line.

“We looked at the schedule, and we were like, every one of these games is winnable,” Wright said. “And that’s what we planned to do. After that Clemson buzzer-beater, we were like, Yeah, we’ve got to win out now. We’ve got to.”

In the locker room Friday at Joel Coliseum, after he had expressed his admiration to his players for their fight, Pastner told him that he believed they were in the tournament.

“So just hearing that we’re in the tournament, geez, honestly, I never thought I’d get to an NCAA tournament anyway,” Wright said. “Coming here, I started basketball real late (in his high-school career), it’s just like, wow, I’m up there now.”

Alvarado shared how playing in the tournament was his dream. Usher, from Canton, told teammates how they had made Tech a team that again mattered in Georgia. It was all a little hard to grasp for Devoe.

“We worked hard for this, throughout the summer, even through COVID,” Devoe said. “Through all the obstacles that we’ve come across this path, it’s amazing to be where we’re at right now. (After) the first two losses in the beginning of the season (to Georgia State and Mercer), and to be where we are right now, it’s unreal. Guys dreams about this, and we’ve got to continue this momentum.”

As he reflected, Pastner doled out credit – to his players, assistant coaches and staff, mostly, and even to former Tech coach Brian Gregory, Pastner’s predecessor.

“Brian Gregory did a great job with culture,” he said. “Obviously, he did a great job with players. Sometimes, you just need a little switch of energy.”

At the end of one journey that has lasted five years and another three weeks, both with the same objective, it was time to exhale, celebrate and refocus on the next ascent, while stepping a bit more lightly.

“We can play more freely and not have to have the weight on our shoulders to try to do what we have to do,” Pastner said. “We can play with more freedom, mentally and physically.”