Sometimes it seems Josh Pastner was born under a bad sign, not that there’s anything wrong with Libra. It took him five years and much angst – an NCAA investigation and resulting sanctions were interspersed – but he finally had gotten Georgia Tech to the NCAA Tournament, which in this sport is all that matters. Then his best player tested positive for COVID-19, which was, if you know anything about Pastner, his worst nightmare come to agonizing life.
To his credit, Pastner coached the heck out of the Yellow Jackets at his disposal Friday. They made 57.4% of their shots against the nation’s best defensive team. They led by 10 points early. They retook the lead in the second half. That they lost 71-60 didn’t reflect the game in its fullness. Inside the final five minutes, they were within five points of favored Loyola Chicago.
But this game will never be remembered for who won and who didn’t. It will stand as a sad memento of our pandemic days. The NBA and NHL managed to get through their playoffs without a significant positive test. MLB’s postseason didn’t see a COVID scratch until the penultimate inning of the final game of the World Series. The College Football Playoff went off just fine. But here, on the first full day of the NCAA Tournament, was the ACC champion playing without the ACC player of the year.
Said guard Jose Alvarado, who wore Moses Wright’s No. 5 on Friday: “I was going out there to try to win it for Mo.”
Then: “We fought … but we sure did miss Mo. Yeah, we missed Mo.”
Then: “What can you say about a guy who worked his butt off and can’t play in the Big Dance.”
Friday marked Pastner’s first public appearance since it became known that Wright was indeed the Jacket who tested positive after Tech won the ACC Tournament and was readying to depart Greensboro after what it believed was a week spent mostly in, to borrow from Warren Zevon, splendid isolation. The first postgame question concerned … well, guess.
Said Pastner: “I can’t tell you – this year, every single test – the pressure I felt. Every single test. I didn’t want a positive. I didn’t want COVID. I didn’t want to give it to my wife and my family. I didn’t want our staff and our players to get it. We have tried to do everything in our power. I felt pressure every single day since November. You just don’t know. A positive can knock you out. You just don’t know.”
Now they know. A positive essentially knocked them out of Tech’s first NCAA Tournament since 2010. Had Wright played, Loyola might well have won anyway. Without Wright, the Jackets played about as well as they could’ve, and still they lost.
Pastner again: “The swing of emotions from winning the championship on Saturday – I can’t express the pressure and the swing of high to low. It was overwhelming at times. I know how sick I felt for Moses Wright. That’s how fine a line it is with COVID. It was literally one day at a time, almost one breath at a time.”
Then: “The ACC’s the premier league in the country. He was player of the year in the ACC. … (Wright is) a humongous loss. There’s no disguising it.”
Pastner deployed a starting lineup of three guards and nobody taller than 6-foot-7. Somehow the Jackets limited Cameron Krutwig, the Ramblers’ third-team All-American center, to 10 points and outscored them 42-26 in the lane. Trouble was, Tech was out of balance. Their inside points came from guards and wings driving to the basket, not from Wright working underneath. The Jackets tried only 10 treys, making three. Loyola tried 27, making 11.
Stat of the day: Over 40 minutes, Tech took one offensive rebound – and that came with 25 seconds remaining. Tech went small because it enabled Pastner to put his five best remaining players on the floor, but with no big man to guard, Loyola was able to run Tech’s shooters off the 3-point line. Pastner: “I felt we were too small at times.”
With 3:42 left, Tech trailed by five after Bubba Parham’s 3-pointer. The Jackets’ Kyle Sturdivant blocked a Marquise Kennedy shot. A jump ball was called, possession to Loyola. The Ramblers’ Keith Clemons missed a trey. Kennedy rebounded and was fouled. He missed the free throw. Lucas Williamson rebounded and flipped the ball to Clemons, who made a 3-pointer. In the span of nine seconds, Loyola missed two shots and a free throw – and then made the game’s biggest basket.
Alvarado: “The ACC is a very hard conference, but we can say we’re the champs. It does suck to end this way, but all those credits go out to my teammates and coaches and to Georgia Tech.”
Pastner: “I teared up and broke down in the locker room. … I told them how grateful I am. I can’t express my gratitude to these young men.”
Wright wasn’t in the locker room. He’d traveled from Greensboro to Indianapolis separately. He spent the week in quarantine. Of Wright, Pastner said: “Thank God he’s healthy now.” But he couldn’t play Friday, and the Jackets are done after one.
It was a lousy way to end a breakthrough season, but what can you do? That’s COVID, man. That’s COVID.