By Mike Wise
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, April 1, 2007
ATLANTA, March 31 -- The showdown of 7-footers dissolved into a game of musical chairs. Ohio State's Greg Oden would rise, Georgetown's Roy Hibbert would sit, and the fortunes of their teams would swing like a pendulum, until one big man and his team were left standing, arms raised, on the hardwood floor.
More foul-prone than ferocious and waiting in vain for its star player, Jeff Green, to emerge, Georgetown could not deny the Buckeyes and Oden on Saturday night, losing 67-60. Neither grace nor grit -- the qualities that ignited the Hoyas' pulsating run through March -- were enough before 53,510 at the Georgia Dome, where the rebirth of a storied men's basketball program was halted in the Final Four of the NCAA tournament.
The loss stopped the Hoyas' dream of playing in their first championship game since John Thompson Jr. lorded over a program led by senior center Patrick Ewing in 1985. Twenty-two years later, his son, John Thompson III, coached the team and Patrick Ewing Jr. played extensively. Yet the paternal ties that became part of Georgetown's growing lore nationally could not contain Oden, a freshman who scored all 13 of his points in the second half, or kick-start the Hoyas' offense.
Green took a paltry five shots, finishing with nine points and 12 rebounds while playing all 40 minutes. The Big East Conference player of the year mirrored his team; neither developed any sustained offensive rhythm.
"We put the ball in his hands and he decided not to shoot," Thompson III said. "As I said, I'll live and die with Jeff Green's ability to make decisions."
The main subplot involved the matchup of two of college basketball's premier big men -- Oden and the Hoyas' 7-foot-2 Hibbert, but it fizzled, instead becoming a night of fouls and frustration. Oden went to the bench less than three minutes into the game and sat there for the rest of the first half. The story of the Hoyas' loss became their inability to capitalize on Oden's absence. They allowed Mike Conley, Ohio State's lithe and quick point guard who finished with 15 points and six assists, to masterfully direct the Buckeyes (35-3) to a 27-23 halftime lead.
Hibbert played just 24 minutes because of foul trouble, though he and Jonathan Wallace led the Hoyas with 19 points apiece. Wallace made a three-point shot that tied the score at 44 with 9 minutes 45 seconds left. But Hibbert soon left the game after picking up his fourth foul and Oden took charge. He played just 20 minutes, but his tenacity on both ends of the court in the final six minutes kept the Hoyas at bay.
Whatever regret and hurt that the Hoyas were feeling at the final buzzer barely materialized on the floor. They seemed to understand how far the program had come in a blink of time.
"To make it this far in the tournament, you know, it's hard to end like this, but we had a great run," Green said.
Three years ago in a half-filled Madison Square Garden, Georgetown was knocked out of the Big East tournament in the first round by Boston College. The program headed by John Thompson Jr.'s top assistant, Craig Esherick, had hit its nadir. The Hoyas finished a deflating 13-15 and failed to earn a postseason bid for the first time since 1974 -- Thompson's second season.
Like its onetime rival St. John's in Queens, N.Y., the Jesuit school's men's basketball program had fallen into a state of disrepair after its halcyon days in the 1980s. Back then, Ewing Sr.'s teams played in three NCAA championship games between 1982 and '85, winning the 1984 national title. But whatever residue of tradition remained at the oldest Catholic university in the United States lived on more in memory than reality.
Until Thompson III's hiring three years ago.
The Hoyas came into the game having won eight straight and 19 of their last 20. Their accomplishments included the Big East Conference's regular season and tournament championships and their pulsating overtime victory over North Carolina last Sunday for the NCAA East Region title, which thrust the Hoyas into their first Final Four in more than two decades.
It was a run that awakened a dormant fan base and a campus clamoring for a winning team again.
In the arena, the section of gray Georgetown T-shirts wasn't nearly as big as the block of red where Ohio State fans were cheering, but the Hoyas' fans were loud and intense, hopping up and down with faces painted silver and blue, pumping their fists.
Senior Pam Papapetrou and her friend Heather Silverio said they were running on adrenaline after four hours of sleep the night before and camping out earlier in the week for tickets.
Silverio said: "These boys deserve it. They're so nice, so classy, they have no attitude. I want them to win it for them -- not for us." Then she blurted out, "I just want them to win so bad," and the two high-fived.
Most were hopeful at halftime that the team would pull it out. But as the game went on, fists clenched and arms crossed. One girl put her blue-painted face in her hands. At the end, some dropped into their seats for the first time, or wiped away tears.
"Tough game," said senior Shaun Blugh, walking out surrounded by men with red eyes. "Jeff Green didn't take advantage of his opportunities."
Other students immediately were swarmed by people trying to buy their tickets.
Back home, students and fans wandered through Georgetown last night in disbelief. Some strolled from the packed bars along M Street looking for something other than the readily available drafts to help them get over the loss. Hillary Prince, 22, found her salve: a chocolate banana cream smoothie.
Throughout the game, some wandered through Georgetown seeking a place that didn't have a long line to watch the game -- or a heavy cover charge. Some watched the game from a sidewalk, peering through the glass window at J. Paul's on M Street, where cheers rolled liked waves. But after the game, Carlos de Leon, 22, could only stand and hug his girlfriend and think about what might have been. "It's bad, it's sad but next year," he said. "What can you say?"
Not since 1985, the senior season of Ewing Sr., had Georgetown advanced so far in the tournament.
"This is the year we moved ahead," Ewing said, sitting courtside at last night's game. "We came out of the darkness and into the light."
Staff writers Susan Kinzie, from Atlanta, and Clarence Williams, from Washington, contributed to this report.