Powered by an aggressive defensive showing, a major size advantage and the team’s best free throw shooting performance of the season, Tech’s men’s basketball team picked up its first victory in the NCAA Tournament since 2005. Tech hit 24 of 25 free throws (for a success rate of 96 percent) in Friday’s first-round battle with No. 7 seed Oklahoma State, and the Jackets overcame a five-point halftime deficit to take down the Cowboys 64-59 and advance to the second round of the NCAA Tournament.
“[We] contested shots and played a really solid basketball game against a very good team,” said Tech Head Coach Paul Hewitt.
Junior forward Gani Lawal led the Jackets with 14 points, and freshman forward Derrick Favors contributed 12 points and a team-high nine rebounds. On the whole, Tech controlled the boards against the Cowboys’ four-guard lineup, collecting 32 rebounds while OSU had 17.
“Seeing the height advantage…made us real comfortable,” said sophomore guard Iman Shumpert. “They’re a real good team, but we’re pretty long, so we got [the ball] inside and it worked out.”
Arguably the biggest story of the game for Tech was the team’s performance from the free throw line. After shooting an ACC-low 64.5 percent on free throws during the season, the Jackets hit all but one attempt from the line on Friday.
Hewitt and the players insisted that they had not changed anything in terms of preparation.
“Just practice, practice, practice. They were falling tonight. We’ve had some tough nights this year, but we had a good night tonight,” Lawal said.
The sudden improvement at the line proved crucial in the latter stages of the game. Tech did not hit a shot from the field in the final eight minutes of the game; all 13 of their points in that period came on free throws.
Hewitt pointed to a much earlier moment as the key moment for the team’s free throw fortunes. Lawal, who had struggled mightily in the ACC Tournament from the line, hit a pair of free throws with 10:57 in the first half to tie the game at 17.
“When [Lawal] stepped up and made those first two, that was a great sign for us. He set a positive tone from that line,” Hewitt said.
Many of Tech’s concerns on defense revolved around OSU guard James Anderson, who was named Big XII Player of the Year after posting a conference-high 22.6 points per game during the season.
The Jackets held Anderson in check throughout the game, and he finished three-for-12 from the field for 11 points and had three turnovers. He missed all six of his three-point attempts. Shumpert was matched up with Anderson for much of the game and prevented him from getting many opportunities.
“I’ve never guarded anyone like that, at least not my size…but I [watched] a lot of film on him, so I sort of knew his tendencies,” Shumpert said.
“Iman really stepped up to the challenge. He was there on [Anderson] pretty much every catch he got [and] contested shots,” Lawal said.
Shumpert helped to make a key stop on Anderson on the Cowboys’ second-to-last possession. With Tech ahead 62-59 in the final minute, Shumpert marked the OSU guard as he circled the perimeter, looking for an opening. When the Cowboys attempted to set a right-side screen on Shumpert to allow Anderson to drive to the basket, Anderson ran into Peacock and Favors underneath and was trapped, eventually committing a costly turnover.
“We always talk about helping the helper around here, and when Iman did need help, somebody was there and then somebody was there to help that help guy,” Lawal said.
Tech had few major highlights on the offensive end in the first half after jumping out to a 6-0 lead. With 5:34 to go, Miller connected with Shumpert for an alley-oop dunk that pulled Tech within 28-27. For the most part, the Jackets looked to attack on the post against the small four-guard OSU lineup and frequently tried to set up their forwards in position to put the ball in from short range.
OSU led 34-27 late in the first half and pulled out to a 39-33 lead in the second, and the Cowboys appeared to have momentum, but freshman guard Glen Rice Jr. put a dent in the lead with a four-point play. Rice connected on a three-pointer and was fouled, and he hit the subsequent free throw. Later, after a Favors block, Peacock scored on a layup off the glass with 12:49 to go to give Tech a 45-43 lead, and the Jackets did not trail the rest of the way.
The game remained close until the end, though. Anderson stole the ball and beat the Tech defense for a fast break dunk to tie the game at 54 with 3:30 left. The Jackets continued to attack the basket in the final minutes and drew fouls repeatedly, and Favors, Miller and Shumpert each continued to hit their shots at the line to keep Tech ahead.
OSU guard Keiton Page hit a three-pointer to bring the Cowboys within one at 60-59 with 1:42 to go, but it was the last basket his team would make in the game. Tech locked down defensively in the final moments to hang on for the victory.
Anderson and Page were two of four Cowboy players with double-digit points. Forward Marshall Moses led the team with 14 on six-for-six shooting.
Tech will move on to face Ohio State in the second round of the tournament. The Buckeyes, a No. 2 seed that entered the tournament 27-7 overall, were the Big Ten champions and defeated No. 15 seed UC-Santa Barbara 68-51 in the first round. Ohio State is led by guard-forward Evan Turner, a National Player of the Year candidate who has averaged 20.3 points, 9.2 rebounds and 5.8 assists per game while shooting 52.8 percent from the field.