Tales from the Bench: Georgia Tech 2004 with David Nelson
Posted on September 17 2020
David Nelson played three seasons with the Georgia Tech basketball program, none more memorable than his final campaign in 2003-2004. That season, the Yellow Jackets, coming off two consecutive madness-less Marches, climbed the polls and surged into the NCAA Tournament, where they ended their season with a national title game tilt against UConn.
Nelson, a 5-10 walk-on guard and career 40 percent three-point shooter(!), sits with The Chucker, High-Volume Shooters’ resident historian, to reflect on GT’s magical – and largely unexpected – run into the 2004 Final Four.
A solid high school point guard from Syracuse, New York, Nelson was most interested in a public school that had a solid engineering program, preferably one beyond the Northeast. Georgia Tech delivered that. “I was going to school for school. If I could play ball, that would be amazing – though I don’t know why I ever thought I could play ball there.”
As it turns out, Georgia Tech’s staff knew of Nelson upon his arrival to campus. Living in Syracuse, Nelson played pickup with members of the Syracuse basketball team during the summers. An assistant coach with the Orange called down to Georgia Tech and put Nelson’s name on Tech’s radar. Nelson began getting some run with members of the Georgia Tech team during the spring of his freshman season before trying out for the squad as a sophomore. “I got lucky that they needed a point guard to fill out the roster.”
As a sophomore during the 2001-2002 season, Nelson played in five games for a 15-16 squad whose season ended in the ACC Tournament. “I’ll just say it’s interesting to be on a struggling team when guys aren’t accustomed to that.”
During Nelson’s junior campaign in 2002-2003, Tech added two standout freshmen in point guard Jarrett Jack and forward Chris Bosh, one of the nation’s top recruits. While the influx of talent didn’t translate into a significant uptick in wins – Tech finished 16-15 and lost in the third round of the NIT – Nelson could feel the program turning. “We were getting better everyday and Jarrett was coming into his own as a point guard. All signs were pointing upward, even as Chris went off to the NBA.”
Though four ACC teams started the 2003-2004 season in the AP Top 25 poll, Tech wasn’t one of them. “Still, we entered that season with a different edge to us. We were hard-working, balanced, and together with a lot of leaders willing to lead in different ways. We didn’t come into the season saying we were going to go to the Final Four, but we definitely believed we could be a strong team.”
After a 3-0 start, Georgia Tech met #1 UConn at Madison Square Garden. The Yellow Jackets smashed the Huskies 77-61. “[Center] Luke Schenscher showed he could hang. Marvin Lewis and B.J. Elder could score. Jarrett stepped into that role as the floor general. We had Will Bynum, who had transferred in from Arizona, coming off the bench and intense, emotional leaders in guys like Clarence Moore and Isma’Il Muhammad. We were big and long and deep and could come at teams relentlessly from all different angles. Coach Hewitt’s philosophy with respect to conditioning was that we’d be sprinting in the closing minutes when you couldn’t.”
The Yellow Jackets rattled off 12 wins to start the season, adding impressive victories over Texas Tech and Ohio State to their non-conference resume. At the end of the 2003 calendar year, Georgia Tech climbed to #3 in the AP poll, which heightened expectations. “The Coliseum went from 30 percent full to capacity and we were meshing together, having fun. Still, we knew we needed to stay grounded because we hadn’t gotten into ACC play yet. Testing ourselves in conference was the next step.”
Georgia Tech endured an up-and-down conference slate, finishing league play 9-7. The Yellow Jackets scored quality wins over the likes of North Carolina, Wake Forest, and Duke, though lost some hotly contested battles to NC State, Virginia, and Florida State among others. “But whenever we stepped onto the court, we felt we could win. That that was a shift from past years.”
In the ACC Tournament, Tech downed North Carolina by one in the quarterfinals before suffering an 85-71 loss to Duke in the semifinals. “In years past, we’d say, ‘I hope we don’t see Duke again.’ After that game, we would’ve been up to play Duke the next night if we could.”
Georgia Tech earned a #3 seed in the NCAA Tournament. “We didn’t know how things would come together, but we were fully committed, knew our system, and were ready to go. We had learned how to play in close games and felt we could compete with anybody.”
In its tourney opener, Tech toppled Northern Iowa 65-60 before escaping Boston College 57-54. Later, the Yellow Jackets dispatched Nevada 72-67. “I remember watching each of those games saying to myself, ‘These guys are good, but we’re better than them.’ In the end, guys stepped up at the right moment and we got the runs we needed.”
In the Elite Eight, Georgia Tech confronted Kansas – and an overwhelming partisan Jayhawk crowd in St. Louis. Nelson calls that game the coronation of Jarrett Jack. Elder, the team’s leading scorer, was limited to 12 minutes with an ankle injury and scored zero points. Lewis, the team’s third-leading scorer, missed all six of his shots from the field and scored but one point. Jack, however, put the team on his back, going for 29 points, nine rebounds, and six assists in the 79-71 overtime victory. “He was king that day. Absolutely dominant.”
At the Final Four in San Antonio, Georgia Tech matched up against an Oklahoma State squad that had claimed the Big 12’s regular season and tournament titles. Schenscher delivered his best game of the season, pouring in a team-high 19 points and corralling 12 rebounds. With 26 seconds remaining, though, the Cowboys’ John Lucas hit a three to knot the game at 65. OSU Coach Eddie Sutton called a timeout. On the Tech bench, Hewitt looked over to Bynum and called for him to come off a Schenscher ball screen at the top of the key. “If you’re open, shoot it,” Nelson recalls Hewitt telling Bynum. “Though Will wasn’t our leading scorer or even a starter, that dude has supreme confidence. And no one questioned it. We all believed Will could knock it down. Of course, he took coach’s words as a complete green light.”
With 10 seconds left, Bynum gathered the ball in the backcourt, he went right toward Schenscher’s screen, hesitated, and then darted toward the basket. “Will can create space like few others and he took it right to the rack and scored with about two seconds left.” OSU’s immediate desperation heave fell short and the Yellow Jackets were off to the national title game.
In the other Final Four tilt, UConn escaped Duke 79-78. “Honestly, we wished Duke won the game against UConn because we felt we matched up so well with them.”
Still, Nelson and his teammates thought they could down UConn for a second time. “It was clear Emeka Okafor and Ben Gordon were stars, but we had gone through the gauntlet and beat UConn earlier in the season. We went into the title game believing we could win.”
Georgia Tech, however, struggled early against the Huskies, and were down 15 at the break. “Luke got two early fouls and we missed a bunch of free throws in the first half. We were down at halftime more than we should’ve been and just couldn’t make up the difference.” While Georgia Tech outscored UConn 47-41 after the break, the Huskies held on for an 82-73 victory. “It’s a weird feeling. When you win that game, you’re off to meet the president. When you lose it, well, that’s it. You just walk off the court.”
Nelson’s basketball career ended that night in San Antonio. He graduated from Georgia Tech that spring with a degree in mechanical engineering and soon after earned his MBA from Tech as well. He remains in Atlanta today, currently an executive with prominent real estate firm. “That loss to UConn and the stage it was on made me reflect on taking advantage of opportunities as they come because golden opportunities like that don’t come along too often.”