John Thompson III clutched a white towel, dabbing the sweat from his forehead because his mother didn't want him to look bad on television. He never slung it over his shoulder, like Pops. The comparisons would be too obvious. Besides, the drama on the floor was enough.
Georgetown sent Madison Square Garden into a tizzy Wednesday night. Like old times, the Hoyas lived to play another day by seizing a wild Big East tournament game in the final minutes. It wasn't for the conference championship. The original Hoya Destroya, Patrick Ewing, was not depositing a layup by Chris Mullin into the third row en route to a national title, circa 1984.
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Georgetown makes a late run to top Seton Hall, 56-51.
But it was a huge step for a program on the rebound, a victory that cements Thompson's improbable first year as one of the best coaching jobs in college basketball this season.
The Hoyas came back from 11 points down in the final eight minutes to stop Seton Hall, 56-51. Darrel Owens, one of those unsung seniors who did everything Thompson asked of him this season, squared and fired in four three-pointers during a 23-7 run to end the game. The Garden was on its feet at the end as Georgetown somehow went from what would have been its sixth straight loss to the brink of its first NCAA tournament since 2001.
Its players, its faculty, its backers who all remembered better times, have a shot to knock off the No. 12 team in the country Thursday night. The collective feeling on the roster and in the stands is palpable:
Bring on U-Conn.
Dropping Connecticut is probably too much to ask after the theatrical finish against the Pirates. But the upset would give Georgetown 18 overall victories after playing in, depth-wise, the toughest conference in America. That's good for a bid, a small miracle for a team picked to finish near the bottom of the Big East.
"This is a game where -- I don't know whether I already said this -- we could have packed it in," Thompson said afterward, in that laboring, folksy breath his father uses. "I mean, it was easy. We were down 11 or 12 or something, which seemed like in my head, as I was looking around, not enough time. Seven or eight minutes to go. You think about that. We thought about that."
Georgetown looked in real trouble when Seton Hall's Justin Cerasoli drove hard to the basket with less than 15 minutes left. The Pirates began to pull away in a work-the-clock game, where an eight-point lead was as good as 15. Cerasoli and Donald Copeland, a 5-foot-10 point guard, look like they've been out of middle school for a week. That baby-faced back court puzzled Georgetown, penetrating and kicking the ball out as the Pirates controlled much of the second half.
It was 44-33 with about eight minutes left, and the 10th-seeded Pirates were on their way. It wasn't until Owens dropped in two three-pointers that the Hoyas even had a shot. Owens is one of those kids who started and then went to the bench without a complaint when Thompson thought freshman center Roy Hibbert was ready. Owens returned to the starting lineup, started bringing his intangibles to the court. Boxing out on defense, deflecting passes, dropping entry passes into Jeff Green when the freshman forward could not miss inside.
When his moment came, he clutched it. With 1 minute 1 second left and trailing by one, he took a pass on the right wing and set his feet from about 21 feet away. He didn't even look like he was going to shoot it at first, he looked so calm. Owens surprised his defender by releasing a rainbow. The bench rose, Thompson leaned back. The ball nestled in the net. Bedlam.
And then the Hoyas clamped down, getting defensive stops and discombobulating Seton Hall.
"We stuck with our stuff, and they stuck with each other," Thompson said. "I think that this, it's a growth process. You've got to take baby steps. We had some success early, then late in the year you go through a down phase, and it's good to see -- it's progress for this team to fight through it five games later and get a win."
Beating the Pirates was not knocking off Villanova and Pittsburgh on the road, which the Hoyas did earlier this season. It wasn't even beating Clemson, which Georgetown did earlier this season. Maryland is 0-2 against Clemson. But the comeback affirmed Thompson's ability to rebuild a program on the fly. Whether it translates to recruits and national interest -- whether the masses start chanting, "We are . . . Georgetown" like they used to -- remains to be seen.
Long term, Louisville, Cincinnati, Marquette, DePaul and South Florida join an expanded Big East next season. Rick Pitino, Bob Huggins and Tom Crean are already years ahead in the recruiting game. Thompson has to play catch-up. He has a nice local base. Green, the 6-foot-8 freshman from Hyattsville, is a nice piece to build around. Rockville's 7-2 Hibbert is still a gangly kid, still getting used to his body. He turned 18 in December. Brandon Bowman has his senior year in front of him.
But that's next season. The Hoyas have a game Thursday night. They face another team -- talent-wise -- they have no business staying on the court with. Georgetown and a man named Thompson pacing the sideline with a white towel are making noise in the Big East tournament.
Just like old times.