Milwaukee – These weren’t the Jackets we’d come to know. These were different Jackets, different and better and more grown-up. Locked into the sort of game they would have bungled away — what, two weeks ago? — they held their nerve and made foul shots and kept defending and now they’re in Round 2 of the Big Dance and acting as if they plan to hang around a good while longer.
What has changed? Said D’Andre Bell: “Outside of trusting and believing in ourselves, the only thing that’s much different is the maturing of Derrick Favors.” But there’s more to it than one gifted freshman coming into his own. There’s a team here that’s coming into its own.
Iman Shumpert is sometimes the sort of point guard who keeps both teams in the game. On Friday he made only one basket, that on an alley-oop, and four assists, and still he kept Oklahoma State from playing its game. He defended James Anderson, who’s known as Big Game James, and limited him to three baskets on 12 shots. Of those three hoops, two came off steals.
Think about that. In the biggest game of the season, Shumpert limited the best shooting guard in the nation to one basket off any sort of offensive set. Bell on Shumpert: “He was spectacular. He did a spectacular job.”
As had happened on consecutive days in the ACC tournament last week, a Shumpert steal was the decisive swoop. With Tech leading by two inside the final 125 seconds, Shumpert flicked the ball from Anderson, got fouled and made both. As he readied for the free throws, you could see the Tech guard had sweated through his gold shorts. That’s how hard he had worked this night.
“I was a little winded,” Shumpert said, “chasing him off all those screens … I think I kept him off-balance.”
Would Shumpert have dreamed he could limit Big Game James to 11 points in this demonstrably huge game? “Yeah,” he said.
Nine days ago there was no assurance Tech would be in this event, but in the Jackets’ minds there was never a doubt they belonged. These are confident young men, and there’s a sense among them that they’re onto something. How else to account for a team that made but 64.5 percent of its free throws on the season making 24 of 25 (96 percent) against Oklahoma State?
The game plan was excellent. Tech got the ball inside early and late — it drifted a bit in the middle, but that can happen in a pressurized setting — and it defended from the first. Credit Paul Hewitt for having his men ready for the occasion. Credit his men for holding together when a flurry of turnovers handed Oklahoma State a five-point halftime lead.
The second half was a grind. The Jackets’ final basket came with 8:19 remaining, but they never yielded the lead. They would miss a shot and get a rebound and get fouled. Or they would miss a shot and force the Cowboys to miss. Whatever was required, Tech supplied.
Some among you will say, “Well, it wasn’t pretty.” Didn’t need to be. There are no points awarded for beauty in this tournament. All that mattered was that the Jackets were involved and energized from the opening tip. They had 13 turnovers, but they induced 11 from a tiny opponent that had to protect the ball to win.
“With or without turnovers, we’re trying to win,” Shumpert said. “All year we’ve been defending and rebounding. And if we get the other part …”
He meant offensive precision. If the Jackets can find a way to score a few more points, they could be in this tournament beyond this Sunday and maybe the next. For months this team has spoken of its “high ceiling,” and on this winning night someone asked Bell what Tech’s ceiling in the Big Dance might be.
Bell didn’t crack a smile. “There is no ceiling,” he said.