By Sally Jenkins
Monday, March 26, 2007
EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J.
Who cared about history, given the momentous present? Who cared about old photographs of guys in too-short shorts, long ago losses, and aging heroes with bad knees? Frankly, nostalgia paled, and even John Thompson the elder was dumbstruck by these Georgetown Hoyas of today, and their ear-ringing, fist-clenching victory over North Carolina to reach the Final Four.
The past and the present met in an emotional father-son clinch at courtside. Georgetown Coach John Thompson III moved through the madhouse, bellowing reverberations of victory toward his Hall of Fame father, who stood waiting with his arms open. "Excuse me," the son said quietly, as he slipped past, and then dove into his father's embrace. The two men rocked back and forth and whispered into each other's ears for a long moment. The son told the father he loved him. The father told the son, in a statement laced with love and emotional expletives, that he could darn well coach.
"This is the greatest thing that could happen to me," Thompson the elder said. "I'm lucky to be able to share in my child's life, and that's more important than getting another spittoon or a statue." He gestured out to the court, where his son and the Hoyas were still celebrating. "There is my statue, right there."
Twenty-five years from now, the collectors will still be talking about this game, just as they still talk about that stirring occasion in 1982 when the elder Thompson and his Hoyas were beaten by North Carolina in the NCAA championship game on Michael Jordan's game-winning shot. This time it was the Hoyas who devastated their opponent, clawing back from a 10-point deficit with a little more than six minutes to go, and then running the Tar Heels off the court in overtime, 96-84, to make the Final Four for the first time since 1985.
"I guess that is what constitutes as a kind of historical game," said Jonathan Wallace, who stroked the three-pointer with 31 seconds left that sent it into overtime.
These Hoyas were no throwback; they owed no debt to the past. They are their own creation. They are a smart, unstintingly disciplined team that never panics, and never does anything but play the right way, the way they were taught by their dapper and self-possessed legacy of a head coach.
"We haven't let others define who we are," Thompson III said. "They're a tough group of kids. Tough-minded group of kids."
For much of this East Region, Continental Airlines Arena at the Meadowlands seemed an appropriately workman-like host site, located in the midst of swampy landfill with a view of distant smokestacks, and surrounded by construction cranes. The sky was a watery March blue-gray, and the winter-brown lowlands made it seem like the game was played in the bottom of a sink. The Hoyas' workaday blue-and-gray uniforms and lunch-bucket style of play seemed to match the place.
Carolina's baby blue and whites, meanwhile, made them seem somehow lighthearted and frivolous by comparison. When the Tar Heels were playing well, and not jacking threes or loafing, they had a high-flying quality, they seemed to sail around the basket. Tar Heel guard Wayne Ellington predicted the day before the regional championship: "Our games are going to clash. They like to slow it down and take some time off the clock, and we like to get it up and down the floor and get easy transition buckets. So, we will see how that goes."
All game long, it seemed the Hoyas' patient methodology would reach its limit against the higher-powered attack of the Tar Heels. The Hoyas were all discipline and system, screens and sharp back-door cuts and whipped passes to fingertips at the basket. Time and again, they trailed by double digits, and they seemed athletically overmatched at virtually every position.
The Tar Heels, in contrast, were all speed and improvisation. With one flick of the ball, they were up the court, filling lanes, and quick stepping to the basket. When Brandan Wright wasn't kiting to the rim, Tyler Hansbrough was muscling there. But the Tar Heels have been a baffling team all season, too prone to strange dead spells and terribly undisciplined streaks.
Meantime, there was something clingy about the Hoyas, they just seemed to barely hang on, like a man on the face of a cliff, while the Tar Heels tried to peel their fingers back, one by one.
"We just stuck with our stuff," Jeff Green said.
Little by little, the game turned ugly for the Tar Heels. As the Hoyas' defense clamped down, the Tar Heels missed 23 of 25 shots over the final stretch and including overtime. They made just one field goal in the last 7 minutes 19 seconds of regulation, a fact that Coach Roy Williams would later partly attribute to their shot selection, about which he was "not ecstatic," he said. Suddenly, it was the Hoyas who looked like the superior team.
Emphasis on that last word. With this game, the Hoyas carved out their own enduring legacy. A quarter century from now, the most indelible memory of these Hoyas will be of their impeccable teamwork, their collective restraint, and rigorous method. While they have plenty of star power in players such as Green and center Roy Hibbert, their greatest attribute is the fact that all of them are valued and vital parts. Five starters were in double figures, and they had 26 assists on 38 field goals, and even those statistics fail to take into account the contributions of reserves Jeremiah Rivers or Patrick Ewing Jr., who got the game's most important rebound. No matter what happens now, whether they win or lose in Atlanta, they are already one of the most memorable teams in school history.
"When you do it the way we do the whole game, five guys working with each other, it's kind of hard to defend," Green said. "We stick together like we did the previous games and today, we can beat a lot of teams."
As the final seconds ticked away in overtime, John Thompson Jr. sat wordless at the press table, where he was commentating on the radio.
"I went deaf for the last five minutes," he said. "I was just thinking, 'They're gonna do this, they're gonna do this.' "
As the victory celebration began, one by one the Hoya players jogged over to shake hands with and hug the man who had taken the Hoyas to their last Final Four, all those years ago.
Said Green, "We had to show respect to the guy who paved the way for us."