ATLANTA -- Long before Sunday’s opening tip, it was clear something was different about the pregame buzz at the old basketball sanctuary.
Players were looser than usual. More photographs than normal were snapped by thrill-seeking spectators searching for that final piece of evidence to prove they were there.
They wanted to prove they witnessed the final sermon given inside an ACC cathedral.
And what a goodbye homily it was.
After losing an early first-half lead, the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets battled back to beat Miami 66-57, sending off Alexander Memorial Coliseum in the celebratory style head coach Paul Hewitt wished to see.
“Right now, I’ll take a win,” Hewitt said earlier in the week when asked if he would take away a souvenir from the building.
The Coliseum will begin to meet the demise of its current form in the coming weeks. During the next 18 months, the once aptly nicknamed “Thrillerdome” will be replaced by a new building with a new look, new feel and completely new name.
Hank McCamish Pavilion is expected to open fall 2012.
All that will remain of the current structure will be its iconic green roof and the support beams that housed Georgia Tech basketball for 55 seasons.
For three of the past four years, victories haven’t come easily for the Yellow Jackets either inside or out of the arena. On the road, they were 0-10 this season until beating Wake Forest on Thursday. At home, they had dropped four of their previous five games entering Sunday’s regular-season finale.
“(Sunday) is definitely something I’ll remember,” Hewitt said.
He won’t be alone.
Senior Lance Storrs had the best offensive game of his career, scoring 15 points. It eclipsed the previous high of 14 he had against Winston-Salem State in 2008.
Freshman Jason Morris firmly implanted himself into the fan base’s consciousness, knocking down three 3-pointers, including two during a rapid-fire stretch that caused the 8,025 to threaten to blow the dome off the building with ever-increasing noise.
And then there was Iman Shumpert, the grizzled veteran who began the game, as Morris said, “on an 11-0 run himself,” scoring all of Georgia Tech’s points to open the contest. The junior’s offseason will be well watched and highly scrutinized as he decides if he will return for his final year.
But before that decision is made, more basketball must be played.
Taking an 11th-place seeding into the ACC’s 12-team tournament Thursday in Greensboro, N.C., the Yellow Jackets (13-17, 5-11 ACC) will take on Virginia Tech for a chance to keep their season alive. Win and they advance to see another day. Keep winning through Sunday's title game, and they can earn an NCAA tournament berth.
“We got there last year,” Shumpert said. “We’re hoping to get there again.”
The only way that happens is if Sunday’s win provides the momentum the Yellow Jackets only saw flashes of during other points in the season.
They beat top-seed North Carolina, Wake Forest and Virginia Tech during a three-game home winning streak in January.
In addition to Storrs’ efforts, Shumpert finished with a game-high 19, Morris had 11 and guard Moe Miller closed out his regular season career with 14. It was the first time four players were in double-digits since the Yellow Jackets lost to Boston College in early January.
Much of that offensive production can be attributed to Morris and the way his presence has keyed quicker, sharper ball movement, Hewitt said. Most of all, Hewitt feels Morris' inclusion has positively affected Shumpert.
“He means a lot to Iman because he’s been our best 3-point shooter all year,” Hewitt said. “When he’s out there, he spaces the floor out for Iman. Iman has been on a roll the last three weeks, and it’s coincided with Jason’s minutes.”
Morris has started the last four games after sophomore Glen Rice, Jr. was originally benched part of a game for “disciplinary reasons.” That also coincided with the departure of guard Brian Oliver, who will return Thursday from a broken thumb.
Along with the Yellow Jackets’ offensive exploits, Miami (18-13, 6-10) was slowed when center Reggie Johnson was suffocated in the post. The 6-foot-10, 300-pound player was held to just four points. Last month, he dominated the backboards to a tune of nine points and 10 rebounds in a Hurricanes win over the Yellow Jackets.
Hewitt believed his team was intimidated by Johnson in that last game; this time around, they wouldn’t be so frightened.
“They had a lot of guys around him,” Miami head coach Frank Haith said. “They were just aggressive.”
While the Yellow Jackets won’t return to Alexander Memorial Coliseum, the way they completely silenced and dominated the Hurricanes hearkened to distant wins of yore, replayed during game timeouts on the videoboards. It gave rise to nailbiter victories and the maddening levels of celebratory noise that once put the "thrill" in the Thrillerdome.
This was not the funeral some expected to see, it was more than that. It was just the carnival-like ceremony the team and its supporters had been so desperate to discover.
“I’m just very appreciative of the people that came out,” Hewitt said. “It’s nice to see them pay tribute to the building, the program, everything.
“It was nice to see them out there.”
Because so many times this year, for varying reasons already discussed, they weren’t.