OXFORD, Miss. — Georgia Tech left New York two weeks ago with a whimper, losers to Pittsburgh in the first round of the ACC Tournament. The Yellow Jackets appeared a team that had run its course, its defense still fierce but its offense unraveling and its legs out of bounce.
Tuesday night, the Jackets were a different and better version of themselves, making clutch baskets, running effective offense, jumping on loose balls and seizing upon the opportunity to finish a most unlikely season back in New York.
Tech held off Ole Miss, 74-66, winning its NIT quarterfinal matchup with the Rebels and earning a return trip to New York for the NIT semifinals at Madison Square Garden.
“We couldn’t get (the team’s seniors) to the NCAA Tournament, so I’m just glad that they’re going to be able to experience this before they head off,” said Tech freshman guard Josh Okogie, who scored a game-high 26 points to go with seven rebounds.
Now 20-15, Tech has defied all expectations for a team projected to finish 14th in the ACC and seen as a candidate to win no more than two or three games in the conference. Further, beating Ole Miss (22-14) in its home arena the win ended an eight-game losing streak away from McCamish Pavilion.
“We played real tough this game,” forward Quinton Stephens said. “We made some plays that we didn’t usually make when we had away games. I think that was the big difference.”
The Jackets will play in the NIT semis next Tuesday against the winner of Wednesday’s quarterfinal between Cal State Bakersfield and Texas-Arlington.
Five observations from the game
As the Rebels began to solve the Jackets, Tech continued to find baskets to hold them off. When a layup by guard Terence Davis cut the lead to six at the 15:38 mark, Stephens hit a 3-pointer from the corner to return the lead to nine, triggering an 11-3 run. Seven minutes later, after forward Sebastian Saiz scored (two of his team-high 19), the Jackets answered with one of their best possessions of the half, moving the ball quickly to set up a layup by Okogie for a 58-50 lead.
Finally, when the Rebels knocked the lead back to four for a third time at the 1:40 mark on a dunk by Davis that caused the arena to erupt, guard Tadric Jackson found Okogie on a textbook backdoor cut. Okogie was fouled and made both free throws (he was 9-for-10 from the line) with 1:22 remaining to start to close the door on Ole Miss.
“I thought they took the fight to us,” Ole Miss coach Andy Kennedy said, “and they made the plays they needed to make to advance.”