NEW YORK — There was something undeniably clingy about Georgetown and Syracuse in the Big East tournament semifinals on Friday night. The two old rivals mauled each other, pawing and grappling and seeking an advantage, but half holding each other, too, like they hated to let go. When it took almost two minutes for the first basket to be scored, you knew it was going to be a long goodbye.
It wasn’t the most elegant finale to a great rivalry. There were too many baffling mistakes by both sides to call it a classic: fumbled opportunities, tie-ups, missed free throws, and it ended on a turnover. But it was, fittingly, great theater, a clawing struggle that had everyone up on their feet in Madison Square Garden. You couldn’t have wished for more: a tie game with less than two minutes to go, and the noise steadily elevating, a constant rolling roar like huge ocean breakers, and then that taut overtime, which came down to one final possession for the Hoyas.
The two teams were so visibly and diametrically opposite: the Hoyas were all purposeful execution in their featureless gray, and the Orangemen so electric in that color that can only be compared to the candy coating on an M&M. The coaches were different in mood and temperament, too, John Thompson III stomping his foot and demanding defensive stops in his black undertaker suit, while Jim Boeheim feigned casual calm in his blazer and loafers, his face betraying just that telltale flush. All of them lit by that stagey Madison Square Garden lighting that made it all the more dramatic.
If only the Hoyas liked theater.
But they don’t. They like draining the drama out of end results. They like precision, and correctness. They like chemistry, and smart decisions from guards Jabril Trawick and Markel Starks, and the balance between Otto Porter Jr.’s elegance and Mikael Hopkins’s feist. They like fundamentals — and defense. Trying to score against them is like trying to scale a stone wall with barbed wire on top. All of which is to say the Hoyas are a wonderfully complete team — maybe even a great one.
But their deliberateness can cut both ways. It can be lovely to watch, so highly taught, carefully schooled, every player looking for just the right pass and just the right shot. But it’s the stuff of grinding tension when they have to play from behind deep in the second half of a big game. And that’s what the Orange did to them, made them play from behind. A nine-point halftime deficit and an 11-point margin midway through the second half felt like a hundred points.
Watching the Hoyas probe, then back it out again, was crazy-making. One pass became two passes became three and four and five passes with a shot going up. And when it counted the most, it was what cost them.
Syracuse’s zone defense was just as swarming, and on top of it they had just a little more firepower on this night, as well as some showmanship. Like James Southerland kissing his palms before a free throw. While the Hoyas shot just 22 percent from the three-point line, Southerland’s had the parabolas of lobbed artillery shells, practically whistling as they fell through the net, setting off explosions in the Syracuse section.
Gradually, agonizingly, the Hoyas inched their way back. Hopkins forced the issue with a driving bank shot to cut it to 47-45 just under the four-minute mark. With seven seconds to go, Porter dribbled along the sideline and drew a foul, and made both free throws to tie it, and the noise hit a crescendo, and the stage was set for the finish everyone had come for.
But while the Hoyas had execution, the Orangemen had more animation in overtime. If there was a single play to take from the night and put in the memory book of images from Georgetown-Syracuse games, it was C.J. Fair’s emphatic slam for a 57-53 lead. It was just enough of a deficit in a game in which four straight points were awfully hard to come by. The Hoyas still had a shot at it — down just three with 18.4 seconds left. But the Orangemen knew the Hoyas too well, knew they wanted to create something with those probing passes. They trapped Porter near the sideline, and he tossed a blind pass to the lane that was picked off.
If there was a lesson for the Hoyas to take from the night, perhaps it was that execution had been trumped by sheer energy. In a rivalry that has been marked by tension and big moments on a grand stage, the higher-drama team won.
For previous columns by Sally Jenkins, visit washingtonpost.com/