ATLANTA — On Monday, a new chapter was to open for Georgia Tech.
At least, that’s how the Yellow Jackets wanted to view things.
Anxious to turn the page from a painful, soul-numbing four-point loss in the ACC tournament title game to Duke on Sunday, they hoped to put the events of the past of four months behind them, and focus instead on what lies ahead.
“It still stings a little bit,” forward Gani Lawal said of the loss Sunday evening, moments after learning the newly 10th-seeded Yellow Jackets were to play seventh-seeded Oklahoma State in Milwaukee during the NCAA tournament’s first round this week. “(We need to) just take this night to mourn a little bit and then start getting ready for Friday.”
When they arrive to the Bradley Center in time for a 7:15 p.m. tipoff with the Cowboys (22-10), the fresh-slate Yellow Jackets will have taken a bold step toward a goal that, exactly one week ago, very few believed they could accomplish.
Mired in controversy, Georgia Tech pre-conference tournament was ground zero for a potential distraction-filled circus.
Just weeks removed from the Twittergate saga in which head coach Paul Hewitt tried to distance himself from critics using the online message site, discussion outside the program calling for his ouster ramped up. At the same time, the Yellow Jackets, labeled a team on the bubble, were forced to play a week-long postseason guessing game all while licking their wounds from back-to-back ACC losses that ended the regular season.
Then suddenly, the light bulb went on.
Streaking to three consecutive wins in the conference tournament before falling to Duke, Georgia Tech — which finished 7-9 in ACC play this season — caught the attention of the NCAA tournament selection committee and muscled its way into the Big Dance.
Despite the loss in the final, the Yellow Jackets (22-12) contend the entire tournament taught them a lot about themselves during the four-day romp through the ACC.
“We learned we can accomplish on a big stage what we’ve been doing in practice,” senior guard D’Andre Bell said. “We’ve been successful. Success always spawns continued success.”
For junior guard Moe Miller, the tournament lesson came in the form of a newfound desire to play a scrappy, never-say-die brand of basketball.
“We knew we had it in us all along, we just had to put it out on the line and just play every possession. Stop taking possessions off,” Miller said. “That’s what we did coming into this tournament. We just wanted to play to not only prove to the people out there who doubt us, but to ourselves, too, that we’re an elite program.”
Late in Sunday’s game, there were no possessions that the Yellow Jackets took off. Battling back from down nine with 3:37 left in the game, they went on a run that brought them within mere inches of a game-tying score with a minute left.
As Miller went for a 3-pointer that would have knotted the game up, the ball, beginning to roll through the hoop, rimmed out for a long Georgia Tech rebound instead. Fifteen seconds later, freshman forward Derrick Favors finished a hard two-handed dunk that brought it to within one, before Jon Scheyer’s 3-pointer from the low wing all but buried the Yellow Jackets seconds later.
“It says a lot about what these guys are capable of doing. It says a lot about them being really focused, especially these last few days,” Hewitt said of the late-game loss. “Obviously, at the end, (Scheyer) stepped up and made an unbelievable shot. To have the courage to step up after being 1-for-8 and taking a 3 that ... it was a big play.”
Hewitt went on to add that had Scheyer missed his shot, he anticipated a long rebound, and the Yellow Jackets would recover it, and with the game clock inside 20 seconds, would wind time down to the take the final shot. Trailing by two at the time, Hewitt felt his team would have won the game.
“Teams make runs. As long as you’ve got time on that clock, anything can happen,” Miller said. “If you’ve been watching basketball over this week, that’s a proven point.”
Now that the madness of March has officially begun, the Yellow Jackets have learned to cling close to that proven fact.