NCAA dreams coming true as Georgia Tech takes care of Wake Forest

Georgia Tech guard Michael Devoe (middle) 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 (middle) 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 his team’s 75-63 win at Wake Forest on Friday night, Georgia Tech coach Josh Pastner had a message for his team in the locker room.

First, he expressed his pride in the hard work players had put in this season to overcome obstacles and reach this point, where they are now guaranteed to finish no worse than fifth in the ACC. Second, he informed them, by his estimation, that their win at the Joel Coliseum had earned them a spot in the NCAA Tournament.

“It’s a lot of emotions,” said guard Michael Devoe, who led the Jackets with 20 points. “As a kid, you dream about this accomplishment that we’ve succeeded with. For us, it’s a huge thing. We worked hard for this.”

It certainly appears to be the case that Tech is in, as the Jackets now sit at 15-8 overall (11-6 ACC) with a six-game winning streak and with metric data to support their case. As hard as it may be for Tech fans to believe, the Jackets very much look like they’re going to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2010. Only three power-conference teams have had longer droughts.

Forward Moses Wright, an ACC player of the year candidate, overcame early-game jitters Friday night to contribute 17 points, four rebounds and three assists.

“Hearing that we’re in the tournament, honestly, I never thought I could (play in) the NCAA Tournament anyway,” Wright said. “Just coming here, started basketball real late, it’s like, wow. I’m up there now.”

For Pastner, who came to Tech in 2016 from Memphis, the feeling was relief. He had sold his vision that the Jackets would make it to the tournament by his fifth season. While he had an experienced group returning, the Jackets have been fighting uphill ever since they lost their first two games of the season, to Georgia State in four overtimes followed by a blowout loss to Mercer two nights later.

“It’s almost an exhaustion,” Pastner said. “You obviously don’t take it for granted, but it’s all the exhaustion. It’s exciting, it’s incredible, a joy, but it’s almost a relief. Like, you can breathe.”

By winning percentage (61.1%), Tech’s 11-6 record is the fourth best ACC season in team history. The Jackets also finish the regular season with six consecutive wins, their longest against ACC competition in regular-season play since the 1996 team won seven in a row.

Wake Forest (6-15, 3-15) lost its seventh consecutive game and was swept by the Jackets.

Tech will now wait on Saturday’s Louisville-Virginia game to see if it can finish fourth in the ACC. The Jackets will need the Cavaliers to win at Louisville to secure fourth and earn a double-bye in the ACC Tournament in Greensboro, N.C.

Said Pastner, “Go, Hoos!”

Tech started slowly, feeling the nerves of being on the precipice of, in their minds, securing the NCAA berth.

“Basically, since we’d beaten Duke (on Tuesday), we were all nervous because we all knew how big this game was to help the postseason,” Wright said. “So I mean, I was as nervous as crap going into the game.”

The Jackets, third in the ACC in committing the fewest turnovers per game (11.3), lost the ball nine times in the first half alone, seven by steal. Wake Forest, drummed in the previous five games by 22.8 points per game, led for more than 15 minutes of the half, leading by as many as four.

However, the Jackets close the half on an 8-2 run to take a 31-25 lead at halftime.

Tech held Wake Forest off throughout the second half as the lead closed to as few as 50-45 at the 9:33 mark when Ian DuBose took the ball off Wright on the dribble and then cleaned up at the other end with a put-back dunk in transition.

However, the Jackets answered with an eight-point run, capped by a 3-pointer from Jose Alvarado on a pass from the post from Wright, to go back up 58-45.

Alvarado, continuing to nurse a knee injury, was not at his best, but still played 37 minutes and came up with 11 points to go with four assists and four steals. Alvarado improved his steals-per-game average to an even 3.0 per game, solidifying his hold as the ACC’s steals leader. Alvarado is seeking to become the first player to lead the ACC in steals in consecutive seasons since Chris Paul did it in 2004-05.