MILWAUKEE — Very rarely do players this time of year look back to the past for guidance. Typically, they are told to stay in the moment, glancing ever so casually at the future that lies ahead.
Someone try telling that to Gani Lawal.
Down this postseason stretch, as Lawal and his Georgia Tech teammates began rolling into the NCAA tournament this week, Yellow Jackets head coach Paul Hewitt issued a strong suggestion to his 6-foot-9 forward.
“Watch that,” Hewitt said he told the junior, speaking of a DVD Lawal owns of his 17-for-20 free-throw shooting performance from a January game against Charlotte.
On Friday night at the Bradley Center, Hewitt’s suggestion paid dividends.
Looking as comfortable as he has been from the foul line since that night in North Carolina, Lawal converted all four of his attempts, sparking a similar wave of team-wide free-throw success that helped propel the Yellow Jackets to a 64-59 upset of Oklahoma State.
The win pushes 10th-seeded Georgia Tech into Sunday’s second-round contest against the winner of Friday’s late-night game between No. 2 Ohio State and No. 15 California-Santa Barbara. It also marks the Yellow Jackets’ first opening-round win since beating George Washington in the 2005 tournament.
“I’m very happy for Gani because he did set the tone,” Hewitt said. “When he stepped up and made those first two, that was a great sign for us. He set a positive tone from that line.”
Lawal’s first two free throws came with 10:57 remaining in the first half and tied the game at 17. They were also preceded by a pair of successful foul shots from forward Zachery Peacock, who finished a perfect 4-of-4, as well.
In all, the Yellow Jackets — who entered the game having shot 64.5 percent from the line — were 24-for-25, with their lone miss coming on the back-end of attempts by guard Iman Shumpert with nearly four minutes left in the game.
“It was just different people out there shooting free throws. Usually, it’s Gani shooting a lot of free throws and Fav (Derrick Favors) shooting a lot of free throws,” Shumpert said. “(On Friday), everybody was getting to the line at different points in the game, and when you see two go in from everybody, it just raises your confidence at the end of the game to knock them all down.”
The free throws were so crucial to the Yellow Jackets’ (23-12) win in the final minutes that they did not even score from the field during the final 8:19 of the game.
While held to a nine-point performance — all but two the result of free throws — Shumpert had plenty of reasons to feel comfortable about where his own confidence had settled by game’s end.
Holding Oklahoma State’s sharp-shooting guard James Anderson to one of his lowest point totals of the season (11), Shumpert was the defensive hero for Georgia Tech. Contesting shot-after-Anderson-shot, the sophomore played his counterpart so tightly that the Cowboys guard had difficulty even moving the ball to teammates.
“He was there on James pretty much every catch he got,” Lawal said of Shumpert. “(Anderson’s) a good player like Coach (Hewitt) said, and we wanted to limit his touches and kind of keep him out of a rhythm.”
In terms of Anderson’s lack of rhythm, no moment was more telling than his final attempt from the field, when, with 21 seconds remaining, he drove into a pack of Georgia Tech defenders anxiously trying to grab and deflect the ball and disrupt a shot that could have pulled the Cowboys to within one.
“We had a spy for the ball, and everyone was just trying to come up with it. ‘One stop, one stop,’ that’s what we were stressing to everybody,” guard Moe Miller said. “If we can get a stop, it’s a beautiful thing.”
Thanks to alertness from Shumpert, Favors and Miller, everything in that one potentially pivotal moment looked beautiful.
As Anderson began taking off for the layup, Shumpert tried to tip the ball forward to Favors who was entering the post, preparing to block the shot. With Shumpert’s deflection, Favors jolted the ball, as well, and Miller reached in the air and grabbed it as Anderson went flailing looking for a foul. Forced into fouling Miller themselves, the Cowboys sent the backup guard to the line to bury a pair of free throws that iced the victory.
Seemingly always around the ball in clutch, late-game moments, Miller was asked how he gets in that position with such regularity.
“I just hope it keeps going that way,” he said, laughing. “We’re really jelling as a team. It’s a beautiful thing that everybody is enjoying each other. This is a good experience.”
It is an experience that for at least another two days, will continue.