By Matt Winkeljohn | The Good Word
- As Evan Cole was playing the best half of his Georgia Tech career, the clock stopped and the freshman forward was reminded once again -- there, in the middle of the floor as the patrons in a sold-out McCamish Pavilion roared -- of how he keeps coming under fire.
It happened when Josh Okogie offered encouragement after busting his chops.
In the waning minutes of their final regular season game, the Yellow Jackets were in seize-the-game mode against Wake Forest Saturday afternoon, when Cole was fouled away from the ball as Okogie rebounded a missed shot on the defensive end.
The Jackets were rolling, having outscored the Demon Deacons 13-5 to take a 54-48 lead with Cole front and center. In that span of 7:21, he was hot with four of his career-high-tying 10 points, four of his career-high 10 rebounds, two assists and a blocked shot.
A couple free throws would be big, turning a two-possession game into one of three.
As players began walking to the other end of the court, Okogie drew next to his 6-foot-9 teammate, and looked up as he threw an arm around Cole’s shoulder as he walked to the free throw line -- where he’s been cold.
“We were working on free throws [Friday], doing a little competition and I think he was 4-for-10,” Okogie recalled. “Obviously, it was competition so I was like, ‘Yeah, you can’t shoot free throws.’ But I grabbed him [Saturday] and told him, ‘I know yesterday I was saying all this, but we need you to step up, and I know you’re going to make these.’
“And that’s what he did.”
After missing his previous free throw, the front end of a one-and-one, leaving him at 45.8 percent for the season, Cole knocked ‘em down to give the Jackets their biggest lead, at eight points, until Okogie made a pair with four seconds left in the game to match.
The first thing head coach Josh Pastner said after the game, before being asked a question, was, “I thought Evan Cole was great. He had a double-double and I’m really proud of him and where he’s come from ... from where he was at the beginning of the year, to get a double-double in ACC play is not easy to do.”
Cole was all over the place in the second half, playing all 20 minutes and scoring all 10 of his points, grabbing nine of his 10 rebounds and dishing both of his assists.
He was nearly nowhere while playing a combined 20 minutes in Tech’s first 12 ACC games before a season-ending injury to point guard Jose Alvarado in the Duke game on Feb. 11 scrambled the Jackets’ lineup and Pastner brought Cole out of deep freeze.
Cole has started all six games since, averaging 6.3 points and 5.3 rebounds.
“I think I’ve come a long way, because I’ve been getting a lot more minutes. Starting is way different, the lineup is way different,” he said. “I think the biggest thing is no matter how many [practice] reps you get you need experience. Experience goes a long way in the ACC.”
After Alvarado went down in the first half of the Duke game, Cole played 21 minutes, although that had more to do with starting forward Abdoulaye Gueye’s foul trouble.
He had 10 points, five rebounds, two assists and a blocked shot.
Then, he became a starter.
Pastner scrapped the Jackets’ three-guard offense, elevated Jackson into the starting lineup, moved Alston to the bench so as to keep a sub guard available, and went with a more traditional lineup of two guards, a center and two forwards -- making room for Cole.
In his first start, he had eight points, seven rebounds, two assists, two steals and a block at Wake Forest on Feb. 14.
Moses Wright has since replaced Gueye in the starting lineup, and he and Cole both get the same message from Pastner: “I told them the only way you’re good enough to play in the ACC is you’ve got to have a motor.
“When he plays with a motor, he’s really good. When he doesn’t play with a motor, you’re not good enough. Same thing with Moses Wright. Evan understands it more now than Moses does that every possession you have got to have a motor.”
Cole’s red-lined in the second half, when he was Tech’s engine.
Jackson fed him for a dunk to tie the game at 35 with 15:30 left, and soon after that came his signature play.
When Jackson missed a short shot a few minutes later, Cole soared to grab the carom before it dropped below the rim and dunked for a 39-35 lead at the 13:02 mark.
“I’ve always been a decent rebounder, but coach told me, ‘you’ve got to crash the glass on offensive possessions,’” he said.
That was one of his four offensive rebounds, and Tech needed them, because leading rebounder Ben Lammers found himself in foul trouble early in the game, and often.
There came a non-traditional offensive rebound a few minutes later.
Lammers missed a jump shot, and the ball was bandied about for moments before Cole snagged it and fired outside the arc to Jackson.
He nailed a 3-pointer to put the Jackets ahead for good, 44-43, with 9:03 to go.
“He’s improved tremendously throughout this entire season,” Lammers said. “Going from no minutes to stepping up and having to play 30-whatever. Having a double-double freshman year, that’s huge.
“We needed someone to step up, especially when I was having foul trouble; we needed another rebounding presence.”
Tech needed another recruit when Pastner and his staff were hunting the 2017 class. And when Cole received a release from his signed letter-of-intent at the UNC-Wilmington last spring, when head coach Kevin Keats took the job at N.C. State, the Jackets pounced.
It was an easy decision for Cole to choose Tech. His stepmother, Jessica Sallinger Cole, played softball on The Flats from 2002-05 to the tune of three All-ACC honors and two All-America teams.
He was all but frozen on the bench for a while and Pastner even said shortly before Alvarado’s injury that he was essentially putting Cole, Wright and big man Sylvester Ogbonda in what amounted to a “redshirt” program to work on skills and strength improvement for the rest of the season, and that they would not play much.
Yet, here he is, playing a lot.
The Jackets won their last two regular-season games, including a 75-67 win over N.C. State and Keatts in which he had eight points, five rebounds, two assists, a block and a steal.
Playing in games has been good for Cole’s development along with the extra lifting, conditioning and skills sessions with assistant coach Eric Reveno. And that looks good for Tech’s future as the Jackets prepare to play Boston College Tuesday when the ACC Tournament begins in Brooklyn.
Tech has some freshmen. Alvarado was dynamic while starting every game before his injury, and shooting guard Curtis Haywood II flashed promise before a shin injury ended his season; he started seven games early in the season.
“There’s no question,” Pastner said. “As much as the injuries have not been good for us, with Ben being hurt, and Jose and Curtis ... the positive out of it is the time that Moses and Evan have gotten, because it has now expedited their progression and maturation, which will really help us next year.
“The amount of time not only those two, but Jose and Curt, is going to pay dividends in the long term. The development has helped them, and all the playing time has helped him. They’ve been able to play through some mistakes, and I’ve been able to coach them hard, and it’s been good for them.”