ATLANTA, GA – Leading up to his team’s first home game of the season — a clash with the Bethune-Cookman Wildcats — Georgia Tech head coach Josh Pastner spent two weeks’ worth of practices working on sureness drills with the Yellow Jackets.
Pastner thought it was much needed after his team coughed up the rock 11 times in Shanghai, China and lost to UCLA by three points.
“Just being sure with the ball,” Pastner said. “Pass and catch. We would be 2-0 if we took better care of the ball and were better in fast-break opportunities.”
The Wildcats, coming off two straight losses, cared little about what Pastner’s team had been working on. Ryan Ridder’s band marched in McCamish Pavilion looking to hand Georgia Tech its first loss ever to a team from the MEAC.
And the Wildcats nearly upset the Yellow Jackets, in large part due to their pressure defense which helped force 19 turnovers. Superb shooting from Brandon Tabb played a big part, too.
Alas, Bethune-Cookman couldn’t finish off Georgia Tech, as a game-tying shot from Malik Maitland missed the mark just before the final buzzer. The Wildcats took their third straight loss on Sunday in Atlanta, falling 65-62 to the ACC side.
A loss is a loss, and Ridder and his squad aren’t in the business of taking pride in moral victories, but for a Bethune-Cookman team with a young head coach and six new players, this was a game where the team built some much-needed cohesion.
“The more games we can put under our belt, we’re definitely getting better as a group,” Ridder said. “Tonight, to go on the road and battle for 39 minutes, I think we’re going to take a lot from that.”
Were it not for 15 missed free throws, the Wildcats probably would have won this game.
When asked about why his team shot so poorly from the charity stripe, Ridder admitted he didn’t have an answer. The sample size is small, as the Wildcats have played just four games, but coming into Atlanta they were shooting 72 percent from the foul line. Ridder’s staff could look back on this game in a few months and see their 10-of-25 free throw performance as an anomaly.
“Maybe it is playing on the road, but we just couldn’t get it done from that area tonight,” Ridder said.
That could be something. This was Bethune-Cookman’s third road game in seven days — a trip that started near Mexico, in Edinburg, Texas. After falling to UT Rio Grande Valley, the Wildcats went north to Denton, where they lost to the Mean Green on Thursday. After this stop in Atlanta, the Wildcats will have a two-game home-stand before playing six of their next eight on the road. In total, Ridder’s side will play 18 road games this year and rack up 19,154 miles worth of travel.
“We’ll be excited to get back to Moore Gymnasium,” Ridder said. “If you haven’t been there, it’s one of the greatest college atmospheres out there. We get great support, we’re 1-0 there and I think our guys play really well there. I know they’ll be excited to sleep in their own beds.”
Ridder is the third-youngest coach in Division I college basketball, edged out only by George Washington’s Maurice Joseph and Morehead State’s Preston Spradlin. The 33-year-old is out to prove critics wrong about his hometown Wildcats, and a solid showing against a team with the reigning ACC Coach and Defensive Player of the Years is a nice step in that direction.
“For us, it’s learning something new every day,” Ridder said. “Being a first-year head coach and having a lot of new guys, the more that we can actually play together in these type of environments, the better we’ll be for the long run towards MEAC play.”
Ridder went to Father Lopez High School, just nine miles away from Bethune-Cookman, the HBCU nestled in Daytona Beach. A career in coaching briefly took him away from Volusia County, spending four seasons as an assistant at Campbell, but he returned in 2013 to lead Daytona State. In four years at the JuCo, Ridder went 95-28 and the Falcons finished first in their conference each season.
His time at Daytona State was when he first came across Brandon Tabb, who is now Bethune-Cookman’s most explosive weapon. A Hampton, Virginia native, Tabb averaged 15 points per game during the 2014-15 season at Central Florida State, and torched Ridder’s Daytona State for 46 points over three games that season.
When Ridder was hired at Bethune-Cookman, Tabb was the first player to call him.
“We had massive scouting reports on Brandon, so I was very familiar with him and his game,” Ridder said. “He’s given us every ounce that he’s had since April 1.”
Georgia Tech didn’t have an answer for Tabb on Sunday. The 6’4 senior, who was an All-MEAC Second Team selection a year ago, poured in 24 points and also had two steals and five rebounds.
Tabb was fifth in the nation in three-point attempts last season with 307, but made just 34 percent of his shots from there. Against Georgia Tech, the gunner went 8-17 from outside and was perfect from the left corner, nailing all three of his attempts from there.
“Tabb can flat-out shoot,” Pastner said. “I mean, he hit some threes that – I don’t even think he was looking at the basket. He just fired it and that thing went in.”
Like Ridder, Shawntrez Davis is another newcomer to Bethune-Cookman that no one really knew much about.
The 6’9 forward from Atlanta came off the bench for JuCo Final Four participant South Plains College last year. Coming out of high school, Davis was a three-star prospect who signed with Texas Tech over offers from Maryland, Georgia, Georgia Tech, Tennessee, Purdue and others. He ended up at Palm Beach State College instead, and then verbally committed to Nevada. But that didn’t pan out either, and he ended up at South Plains.
Now he’s at Bethune-Cookman, which seems to be a good fit. Through four contests, Davis has secured three double-doubles and is averaging 14.5 points and 10.8 rebounds per game.
“We feel like he’s one of the more quality big men, not just in our league, but we feel like he can play at a lot of different levels,” Ridder said. “Tonight, going against Ben Lammers, who is just tremendous defensively, I don’t think Shawntrez backed down and I think he’s going to continue to get better as he gets more games under his belt.”
Lammers (19 points, 13 rebounds, eight blocks) and missed free throws were two of the problems for the Wildcats on Sunday. The other was easy missed buckets, as Bethune-Cookman missed nine layups and shot just 7-of-16 from the paint.
But Bethune-Cookman defended well enough to stay in the game despite its shooting woes. The Wildcats ran the Yellow Jackets off the three-point line, allowing them to attempt just eight shots from outside and letting just one go in.
The Wildcats put a press defense on late in the first half, and went back to it various times in the second half. That helped Bethune-Cookman get 25 points off of Georgia Tech turnovers.
“We didn’t want to guard that wheel action for 30 seconds,” Ridder said. “We decided we’d slow press them and try [to milk] seven or eight seconds before they were able to start their offense.”
Going forward, Bethune-Cookman may have the makings of a blueprint for how it will have to play to win games this season: get open looks for Tabb from deep, let Davis work inside, press early and often, force teams to take shots inside the arc, and make free throws.
Even without the last ingredient, this recipe almost worked against Georgia Tech. And if it almost beat an ACC team, shouldn’t it work in the MEAC?
“I thought we executed our game plan,” Ridder said. “We were disciplined. We were proud of our guys’ effort. Obviously, we didn’t help ourselves from the free throw line. But at the end of the day, this this is a work in progress.
“We don’t celebrate a lot of moral victories, but I do think we can grow from it and learn from this game.”