Georgetown vs. Syracuse: Orange edge Hoyas in OT to reach Big East final

Get the obvious out of the way first: This was appropriate. If Syracuse and Georgetown will never play each other again in the Big East tournament — and yes, it’s worth crying in your beer about that callous fact — why not play five more minutes? Extend this week, this melancholy and reflective week at Madison Square Garden, by as much as possible.

It might as well end with Georgetown point guard Markel Starks crouched in the corner of the bench and the baseline, tense and helpless, fouled out. It might as well end with Syracuse Coach Jim Boeheim getting a hug from his old rival, former Georgetown coach John Thompson Jr., sharing a laugh. It might as well end with one last heave at the rim, one that caused the entire Garden gathering to inhale, bug-eyed.

Saturday night, the Big East will be put to rest with one final championship game at the Garden, such a fitting and electric stage all these years. But Friday night, Georgetown and Syracuse added one final chapter to their own rivalry, a 58-55 overtime victory ground out by the Orange in the semifinals, one that made up for in intensity what it lacked in artistry — which just might be a phrase that appears on the conference’s tombstone.

“This was just a gritty win,” Boeheim said afterward, using another catchphrase for this event over the past 34 years.

The decisive moments also seamlessly fit in with the event’s history. Syracuse established a four-point lead in overtime on C.J. Fair’s vicious putback dunk. But with 14 seconds left, Georgetown had the ball, down just three. With Starks, the point guard, already fouled out, Georgetown drew up a play to set a screen for Otto Porter Jr., the conference’s player of the year, about whom Boeheim said afterward, “He’s the best all-around player I’ve seen in this league.”

Over the past 33 years, Georgetown and Syracuse have been one of the most contentious rivalries in college basketball, but as Syracuse prepares to leave the Big East conference for the ACC and Georgetown moves to the Catholic 7 next year, former players, coaches, journalists and alumni recall the history of the rivalry. (Jayne Orenstein/The Washington Post)

Heady praise from the only coach who has worked in every single one of these events. But this Syracuse team, like other Syracuse teams — and, indeed, like this conference — is defined by its defense. So when Porter got the ball on the right wing, the Orange was there with a ferocious double-team. The lithe 6-foot-8 Porter tried to slither through, and couldn’t.

“They played it well,” Georgetown Coach John Thompson III said.

Fair came up with the steal, and the orange-clad in the Garden stands, well aware the Hoyas (25-6) had beaten Syracuse (25-8) twice this year, thundered three decades worth of approval.

Neither team shot 40 percent from the floor. Neither team scored 60 points. And no one would trade what they felt pulsing through the Garden.

“We all kind of saw this coming,” said Syracuse forward James Southerland, one of four Orange players in double figures.

In the moments after, reflection on the rivalry and the tournament was difficult for both sides, because Syracuse has the championship game Saturday night against Louisville — which beat Notre Dame, 69-57, in the late semifinal — and Georgetown has a day off too early. “It hurts,” was the best way Starks could put it, and given how hard the two teams played, that was apparent.

Thompson sighed when he mulled it all over.

“Fitting that it went into overtime?” Thompson said. “Yeah, it is. It’s a shame they’re heading down to Tobacco Road for a few dollars more. This is a rivalry that has meant a lot to our program, meant a lot to their program, meant a lot to this conference.

“I could give you my spiel that intercollegiate athletics is going through an evolution, and this is just a part of it. You’ve all heard me say that. But it’s a shame that we will no longer have the same type of relationship.”

Boeheim again said he reflected on his school’s move to the ACC — or, more accurately, its departure from the conference that has defined him — before the game. But asked why Syracuse would leave all this, he said sharply, “This is about football.”

These two schools met in the very first version of this event, back in 1980, a Georgetown win. Before Friday night, they met in the tournament a dozen times after that, four more times in the final. Georgetown won six. Syracuse won six.

And even as the conference expanded — this year’s tournament included schools from Wisconsin and Indiana, from Florida and Kentucky, from Ohio and Illinois — Georgetown and Syracuse were always there. The bow on the rivalry was to have been last Saturday, when the Hoyas hosted the Orange and thumped them, 61-39. Such a blowout didn’t seem a fitting end. Another meeting seemed necessary.

“It meant a lot for us to even get the chance to play against them again,” Syracuse senior Brandon Triche said.

So they wrote more memories. Little-used Syracuse guard Trevor Cooney was “the best player on the floor” in the first half, according to Boeheim, when he scored 10 points. Georgetown stormed back from 11 down, tying it on Jabril Trawick’s free throws with 1 minute 47 seconds left. And with 7.3 seconds left, with Syracuse up two, Fair touched Porter along the sideline and was whistled for a foul. Porter nailed both free throws to force overtime.

It was not over, though, until Trawick’s desperation half-court heave hit off the backboard with a thud. “I thought it was in,” Thompson said. But it wasn’t, and it was over — over Friday night, and over forever.

Barry Svrluga is the national baseball writer for The Washington Post.
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