ATLANTA, Ga. – Inconceivable.
That’s a word to describe the scenario Grambling State University’s men’s basketball team found itself in on Friday night at McCamish Pavilion. With 10 minutes remaining, the historically woeful Tigers were leading Georgia Tech by 16 points.
Yes, that Georgia Tech. The one that plays in the ACC. The one coached by Josh Pastner. The one led by reigning ACC Defensive Player of the Year, Ben Lammers.
And yes, that Grambling State. The one SWAC team that has never won its conference tournament. The one that has had three winning seasons since 1990. The one who doesn’t have a player on it’s roster that the average college basketball fan would recognize. The one ranked as the 330th best team in the country by KenPom.
Building this lead alone would have been a major accomplishment. But anyone watching this game would have been lying if they said they thought Grambling State would actually win, even in that moment. Everyone expected Georgia Tech to make a run.
And it did.
With 22 seconds left, Grambling trailed by a point, but had the ball. Tigers head coach Donte’ Jackson, patrolling the sidelines in his first season of Division I college basketball, called a timeout and drew up a play. The design was simple: hold the ball, space out the defense, get a high-ball screen, and then let Ivy Smith Jr. make a play.
The clock started ticking. Smith cradled the ball at the top of the key. He got his screen, drove right while being defended by Brandon Alston and floated up a shot near the rim.
“The ball went up and somehow and someway it was a tip-in,” Jackson said. “I don’t know who tipped it in, but it went in.”
Smith’s shot touched the backboard and the front of the rim, and then it bounced off the fingers of Lammers, Georgia Tech guard Curtis Haywood and Grambling’s Jason Perry-Murray. And somehow, someway, that ball swished through the bottom of the net.
“The basketball gods were with us today,” Jackson said.
Six seconds remained, but Georgia Tech’s next shot missed. Grambling State won 64-63 to cap off a season-opening seven-game road trip. It’s the second win of the season for the Tigers, but it’s their biggest win in a long time.
Grambling State Sports Information Director Brian Howard only had records going back to 2008. Since then, the Tigers had never won a buy-game, never beaten an ACC team and never beaten a Power 5 team on the road. According to ESPN Stats and Info, Grambling State had lost its last 63 games against teams from the Power 5 and Big East, by an average of 34.7 points per contest.
“The last couple of games we’ve been up and down, but coach just keeps telling us to believe. That’s our motto,” Smith said. “In this game, we came out hard and listened to what he said.”
Smith finished with 14 points, and Axel Mpoyo had 14 points and eight rebounds, but Grambling was led on the stat sheet by Diontae Jones in the win. The 6-foot-6 wing tallied 18 points, nine rebounds and two steals. He also flushed four of his six attempts from behind the arc.
“(Jones is) a grit guy. He has a professional attitude,” Jackson said. “You sit back and maybe say, ‘he don’t have the best body, he ain’t athletic, he’s not this, he’s not that’ – but he just knows how to play. He hits big shots, he spaces the court, he rebounds and he brings toughness to our team.”
There’s three reasons why Grambling State won this game and why Georgia Tech lost it.
The Yellow Jackets’ head coach spelled out the first reason point-blank in his postgame presser.
“Grambling State just played with more energy,” Pastner said. “They out-energized us today, unfortunately. We’re not good enough to try and turn it on late.”
Georgia Tech came out slow. The Yellow Jackets overlooked the Tigers and took them for granted. They were coming off a big win over Northwestern, and looking forward to facing another Power 5 school on Sunday in Tennessee.
Grambling State was coming off its fifth loss of the year. To the Tigers, the Yellow Jackets were just another team everyone said they should lose to.
But the Tigers came out with tons of energy. At times, when they were bobbling uncontested rebounds, it seemed like they had too much caffeine before the game.
Grambling settled in though, and played its game. The Tigers attacked the paint, scoring 24 points there, and took advantage of the fast break, scoring 13 points on those chances.
Jackson’s team played physical, fouling Georgia Tech 21 times and drawing 17. And when Georgia Tech went to the free throw line, it was awful, as the Yellow Jackets went 11-of-22 from the charity stripe.
And the Tigers went right at Ben Lammers. Grambling didn’t back down from the 6-foot-10 forward. Even when he blocked their shots – which happened seven times – they kept driving right back into the paint.
Driving against Lammers time after time caused the big man to rack up fouls, which forced Pastner to recall him the bench. The big man – who Pastner said was playing at “about 50 percent” – was neutralized against Grambling and finished with just four points.
“In order for us to have a chance, we had to hope that (Lammers) would have an off-night,” Jackson said. “Him getting into foul trouble early definitely worked to our advantage, and it had him in a situation where he never really got in a groove. I’m just happy he was 1-for-7 tonight. That’s the reality.”
Lammers’ off-game was reason No. 2. The third reason why the game’s result fell in Grambling’s favor is because they are the team who was led by Smith.
Standing 6-foot flat and weighing 160 pounds soaking weight, Smith played as if he was double that size, going at Georgia Tech defenders harder than how Travis Barker hits his drums. In addition to his scoring total, he tallied six assists, two steals and two rebounds, and barreled into the paint with recklessness.
“I believe he’s one of the best point guards in our league,” Jackson said of Smith. “He comes in, night in, night out, and just works his butt off. He listens, he takes constructive criticism and one day, I told him, you’re going to lead us to some big wins. I always just ask him to believe. Believe you’re going to make the shot, believe you’re going to make a play.”
For Smith, Jackson needs to send a Christmas card to Shawn Walker, the Tigers’ former head coach.
The sophomore grew up in Tacoma, Washington, and somehow, someway – sort of like the final shot he put up Friday night – Smith landed at the small HBCU in Louisiana, about 2,400 miles away from home.
That’s because, as Smith tells it, he fractured his foot during his senior year of high school, and took a prep year in North Carolina. That’s where Grambling’s former coach noticed him.
“Coach Walker found me and he liked my game. I never knew about the school until I came here,” Smith said. “And I love it. It’s a long way from home, but I love it.”
In the final six minutes of the game Friday, Smith kept the Tigers in it by scoring seven points and dishing out an assist in that stretch. When Georgia Tech made it’s run, it still had to answer to Smith and his teammates.
“We’ve been close in several games, but it was our first time being up at the half, and I told them that Georgia Tech was going to come out and swing with a big punch,” Jackson said. “Now it’s about, can you withstand the blow?”
Grambling stood tall when Georgia Tech finally made their run, and the outcome was one of the biggest wins in school history.
College basketball fans around the country had little reason to pay attention to Grambling this season. The Tigers have been historically bad and weren’t projected to make any noise in the SWAC. And on top of that, they’re ineligible for NCAA tournament play because of APR scores.
But now the Tigers are starting to find their chemistry. They have a big win on their resume. With a new coach and a squad – led by Smith – that has a newfound mindset, maybe, just maybe, Grambling will win a few more big games this season and finally get some recognition.
“Everybody doubts us. They say we’re one of the last teams in the country. We’re just trying to prove a point,” Smith said. “Regardless if we can go to the postseason or not, we still want to play hard and have a championship mindset.
“After a game like this, people notice, people want to talk.”