By Mike Wise
Saturday, March 24, 2007
EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J.
The design was John Thompson III's, but the play actually began and ended in Jeff Green's mind. As the end of his season neared, maybe the end of his Georgetown career, the junior Hoyas forward decided something: He would not leave the floor without taking the last shot. If he had to power his own frame through mounds of muscle to get that basketball up on the rim, that's how it would go down.
"I'm willing to do whatever it takes to try to win the game," he said. "If that's having the ball in my hands or making another play to get my teammate open. Hopefully, I'm one of those top players that can make those plays in games."
Thompson, sitting next to his best player on the dais, leaned in. "His coach feels that way," he said.
Spin toward the rim. Split the double team. And remember to use the glass.
It was the most basic, fundamental, last-second execution imaginable in a big game. And yet here was the irony about Green's absolutely riveting short bank shot that sent the Hilltop into a state of hysteria. It came off a broken play. That's right. The kids with higher hoop IQs than any Ivy League school were out of options and almost out of time when Green emerged from a mass of Vanderbilt jerseys with 2.5 seconds to play and backpacked the Hoyas to within one game of the Final Four.
"A fumble play, a bumble play I had to make," he said. "I got lucky, and it went in."
With 14.4 seconds left in a great college basketball game, Thompson went to the Princeton playbook in his mind and came up with a play that already had fooled Vanderbilt once. There would be a pass into the high post, followed by a precision backdoor cut by Patrick Ewing Jr. Earlier in the game, the play had worked to perfection, except Ewing caught a wet spot and slipped and lost the ball out of bounds.
This time, Green decided not to gamble. He eyed the clock, put the ball on the floor and improvised. He fumbled the ball for a minute, spun toward the rim, somehow contorted his body through the lane and his arms emerged from a sea of black uniforms. A high-arcing shot fell cleanly through the net after touching the backboard.
This was about Green's finish, but it was also about one of the great, resilient moments in the program's recent history. Georgetown was, well, getting out Georgetown-ed in the first half. The Vanderbilt kids were more poised on offense, using their dribble penetration to create easier shots than the Hoyas for most of the first 20 minutes. They were playing in-your-grill defense, too, pushing Roy Hibbert off the blocks and rendering him ineffective in the lane.
Shan Foster, a junior wingman who apparently declares himself open once he leaves the team bus, had this loosey-goosey feel to his game that just became contagious among his teammates. They were whizzing the ball around the perimeter, taking three-pointers whenever they felt the urge and just frustrating the Hoyas on the defensive end.
Every possession felt like a monstrous struggle to get a good shot. After a couple of bad calls against them, they grew frustrated and seemed on the verge of really combusting. Down 13 in the first half and 32-24 at halftime, if ever Georgetown had an opening to panic and throw its tournament life out the window, Vandy was the team to make the Hoyas do so.
But, in hoop vernacular, they played through. Through the calls. Through the misses. Through their own sloppy play on both ends. Jonathan Wallace and DaJuan Summers began coolly dropping in three-point rainbows every time the Commodores threatened to pull away. They began closing out on Vanderbilt's shooters. Most of all, they began playing together amid the noise and the prospect of their season fading away.
Foster is a wonderful player, but as more hands got in his face he began to miss. He ended up taking five more shots than any of his teammates and in the end Vanderbilt just did not have the balance and depth of Georgetown. The Commodores also did not have Green and the final, frantic, fabulous play that featured a mob scene on the floor afterward.
There were cries that Green had not reestablished his pivot foot, and therefore traveled. But basketball minds much wiser than us surmised you can't make a call like that to end a taut thriller.
And, besides, Rich Chvotkin's hotel room is reserved until Sunday. It would not be right to make him check out early.
Chvotkin, the team's play-by-play announcer 1,000-plus games running, kept yelling courtside after Green's basket, raising his hands, going berserk. Sitting next to his son, Evan, last night, the man's body was shaking at the end.
"HOYAS WIN! HOYAS WIN! HOYAS WIN!" he kept shouting so that every soul in the arena could hear him. He finally took off his headset and started shouting "YES! YES! YES!" This was not a Marv Albert, pause-for-effect Yes! Chvotkin was raising his hands to the heavens as if at a revival. It reminded me of a Thai journalist at the 1996 Olympics, whose body shook as he screamed for his countryman, a featherweight boxer. The Thai journalist finally explained to the security guard who wanted to throw him out why he could not be objective. If his man lost, he had to leave America and return to Thailand. Similarly, Rich Chvotkin did not want to go home.
Jeff Green did not want to go home. Georgetown had no thought of going home. They took the next step in the great, Thompson rebuild -- a rung higher on the ladder than last year. The region final. Off a broken, Princeton play. The irony was so delicious.
Green was the kid who cut his braids to conform to his coach's ideal of a program, a player who could have averaged 25 points or more at most schools but who sacrificed some of his individual gifts to become part of a stronger, better team. Any fear that a system such as Georgetown's would curtail his development proved false. He became the Big East player of the year and a cinch first-round NBA draft pick.
And at the exact moment that his discipline was needed most, he disciplined himself to become the player that brought him to Georgetown. The kid who refused to let anyone else decide the game, his season or his career.
Spin toward the rim. Split the double team. And remember to use the glass. Just like his coach drew it up.