By Camille Powell
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, March 9, 2007
NEW YORK, March 8 -- Coach John Thompson III had seen this from his Georgetown team before, on this very same Big East tournament stage, and it must have made him a little uneasy. The Hoyas played a brilliant first half of basketball in their quarterfinal matchup against ninth-seeded Villanova on Thursday, but then turned tentative and lackadaisical and had a 25-point lead whittled to single digits.
But unlike last year's Big East semifinal loss to Syracuse, in which the Hoyas blew a 15-point halftime lead, Georgetown weathered the comebacks from the Wildcats and won, 62-57, in front of an announced crowd of 19,594 at Madison Square Garden.
"I wish I could lie to you and say no, but yes, it did," said Thompson, when asked if his mind flashed back to that wrenching loss to the Orange, which set a tournament record for largest halftime deficit by a winning team. "I'm glad our guys held on. Glad we held on, glad that didn't happen."
As a result, the top-seeded Hoyas (24-6) will face fourth-seeded Notre Dame -- which beat Syracuse, 89-83 -- in the first semifinal at 7 p.m. on Friday night. Georgetown will attempt to reach its first Big East final since 1996.
Georgetown expected a battle from the Wildcats, because the teams split their first two meetings. The Hoyas, who had four players score in double figures, did two things that they didn't do in the closely fought regular season games: They held conference rookie of the year Scottie Reynolds in check (4-of-14 shooting, 11 points), and they were able to establish 7-foot-2 center Roy Hibbert inside. Hibbert had 14 points on 6-of-9 shooting, after scoring a combined six points on four shots in the first two games.
"It's really important," guard Jessie Sapp said of getting Hibbert involved. "The past couple of games against Villanova, they've been taking him away from us, and it forced other things to happen, other people to step up. But it made it a lot easier for other people to get the ball and make shots because Roy was just dominant today. It was a team effort, but it was fun to have Roy be a part of this."
The Hoyas got to New York on Monday night and then spent much of the next two days either in their hotel or at the gym.
So by the time their noon tip-off rolled around Thursday, the Hoyas were eager to play -- and to avoid becoming the third consecutive No. 1 seed to be eliminated in the Big East quarterfinals.
"We didn't want to come out and have people think we're rusty," said Sapp, who had six assists and just one turnover. "We've been working hard, and we wanted to show everybody that we're still one of the top teams in the Big East and we're going to play like it."
For the first 14 minutes, Georgetown looked like one of the top teams in the country. The Hoyas scored easily on offense and used their length and athleticism to pressure the Wildcats into missing their first nine shots (two of which were blocked by Hibbert). Georgetown opened a 14-0 lead, and Villanova (22-10) didn't score its first basket until forward Curtis Sumpter made a baseline jumper with 12 minutes 40 seconds left in the half.
By that point, the Hoyas were in the midst of their best offensive stretch of the season. Over a seven-minute span, Georgetown made 10 consecutive shots from the field to take a 32-7 lead. "We came out early and scored so easily," said Thompson, whose team shot 55.2 percent and had 13 assists on 16 field goals in the first half. "I think it got to a point where we got too tentative. We got too tentative and started looking at the clock and trying to get the game over instead of playing. . . . They are too good to do that and we needed to stay more in attack mode."
Villanova opened the second half with an 11-2 run -- which included back-to-back three-pointers from Sumpter and Reynolds -- to cut its deficit to 10 points, but the Wildcats didn't get any closer until the final 90 seconds of the game. Villanova's press created turnovers, and two free throws from Sumpter, who finished with 18 points, brought the Wildcats to within 59-54 with 28 seconds to play.
"We kind of got lackadaisical as far as having that killer instinct to put a team away," said Jonathan Wallace, who had five assists. "We kind of played around with them and got away from what we do a little bit. Being the poised team that we are, we were able to regroup and get focused and grind it out."
Now the Hoyas get to face the Fighting Irish (24-6), whom they've already beaten once -- badly. Georgetown held Notre Dame to its lowest point total of the season in a 66-48 win Jan. 6. But that was a long time ago, and the Hoyas learned one valuable lesson Thursday.
"Don't take any team in the Big East for granted," Sapp said. "Every team is good. Every game is tough. Don't take anything for granted."