ATLANTA — These are desperate times.
Georgia Tech knows that, and it is fully determined to make the final weeks of its season count. Because if the Yellow Jackets do not, they realize they could be bracing for a much sooner-than-anticipated exit in March.
“This last stretch here is very important,” junior forward Gani Lawal said. “I was really hoping we would go 8-0 in the last bit here, but 7-1 can work OK, too.”
Fresh off a buzzer-beating road loss to Miami earlier this week, that is precisely the mentality Lawal and the Yellow Jackets will need tonight when they travel to Winston-Salem, N.C., to face Wake Forest (17-5, 7-3 ACC) for the second time this season.
A repeat win over the Demon Deacons would give the Yellow Jackets a 2-1 mark in Lawal’s unofficial season-ending stretch, and it will go a long way toward perhaps restoring the team’s confidence heading into postseason play.
“We talked about that stuff at the beginning of the year,” head coach Paul Hewitt said Thursday, referring to thinking about the ACC and NCAA tournaments. “But now, you talk about what’s in front of you. You have to take it one game at a time, and if we take care of business, we’ll be fine. If you leap ahead, that’s not really going to help you right now.”
The overwhelming reaction to the 20th-ranked Yellow Jackets (17-7, 5-5) is that they have a team talented enough to advance deep in the NCAA tournament, but they are sitting right in the middle of the log-jammed ACC.
Still, that does not deter the players.
“I feel we’re an NCAA team,” Lawal said. “We’re still one of the top-tier teams in this conference.”
Lawal added that his top focus is getting through the rest of the season unscathed, then going untouched in next month’s ACC tournament.
“There is a lot of positive going on with this team,” Hewitt said. “The way things are these days, it’s very easy to look at the negative.
“Not everything is bad. I can think of about 300 teams that would want to change positions with us.”
That said, Hewitt still contends there are several areas his team still needs to work on if they are going to get on a hot streak starting tonight, but there is plenty to make him feel comfortable with the group he has.
Hewitt pointed to Georgia Tech’s strength of schedule. According to the NCAA, the Yellow Jackets currently rank 25th nationally in RPI. He also noted Georgia Tech’s No. 2 ranking nationally in field goal percentage defense entering this week’s play.
In the first meeting with the Demon Deacons, that statistic was crucial. By holding Wake Forest to a 32.8 shooting percentage, the Yellow Jackets were able to storm to a 79-58 romp on their home court. Freshman Derrick Favors was the defensive standout that day, hauling in eight defensive rebounds and blocking five shots.
That was not the only time this year a freshman tried to save the day.
On Thursday, in Miami, fellow freshmen Brian Oliver, Glen Rice Jr. and Mfon Udofia took over the action late, distributing the ball to one another to spark a 15-0 second-half run that gave the Yellow Jackets a chance to steal a come-from-behind victory.
With Oliver draining five 3s en route to his team-leading 19 points, the Yellow Jackets forced a tie with eight seconds remaining. But that was just enough time for Hurricanes guard James Dews to hit the game-winner.
“An occupational hazard, they say,” Hewitt said.