By Liz Clarke
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, March 1, 2009
PHILADELPHIA, Feb. 28 -- There was an all-too-familiar stretch late in the second half of Saturday's game against Villanova in which Georgetown squandered its biggest lead.
All it took was three successive turnovers by the Hoyas and a jump shot, a layup and pair of free throws by the Wildcats, and Georgetown's eight-point margin was slashed to two.
Had the final five minutes mirrored the season to date, the Hoyas would have trudged home with another dispiriting loss that underscored the liability of youth in a conference as tough as the Big East.
But on this day, Georgetown halted its late-game slide against 10th-ranked Villanova, clamped down on defense and fed the ball to the player who has proven most fearless in the clutch. Sophomore Chris Wright did the rest, scoring the last four points to clinch a desperately needed victory, 56-54.
And for the first time in weeks, a Georgetown game ended with broad smiles and slaps on the back all around.
It was an inelegant contest, to be sure, with the teams combining for 45 turnovers (Georgetown's DaJuan Summers accounted for eight of the Hoyas' 25) and woeful shooting from three-point range.
But having slogged through nine losses in the previous 11 games, Georgetown Coach John Thompson III saw no need to quibble over matters of style.
"I'll take a win," Thompson said, "and we'll fix the turnovers."
The victory was Georgetown's fourth over a ranked team this season and its first since Jan. 14, when the Hoyas toppled then-No. 8 Syracuse at Verizon Center. And it was achieved with smothering defense and the added satisfaction of having held Villanova, which boasts the Big East's top-ranked offense, to a season-low 54 points.
"It feels real good -- especially on the road, in a hostile environment," said Wright, who finished with 13 points, 5 assists and 4 rebounds. "That was a big win for us. And it's nice the way we won and closed the game out. In the past, we've given up games like that."
Late-game collapses have been Georgetown's undoing since mid-January, with panicked decision-making and halfhearted defense undermining early leads.
Saturday against Villanova, Georgetown never trailed after Nikita Mescheriakov (11 points) put the Hoyas ahead, 24-23, with a jumper with 3 minutes 47 seconds remaining in the first half. But given the Hoyas' recent slide, simply protecting a second-half lead was every bit as much reason to celebrate as clawing back from a major deficit.
Thompson ventured to say that it represented progress for the team, which relies heavily on freshmen and sophomores.
"You go through what we've gone through and hopefully, you learn," Thompson said. "Today when there was a bad possession, it didn't linger as long as it has in the past."
Summers, the Hoyas' junior forward, was a case in point. After an error-prone first half (six turnovers, five points), he opened the second half by swishing a three-pointer and finished with a team-high 16 points.
Georgetown shot 49 percent while holding Villanova (23-6, 11-5), known for its sharpshooting guards, to 33 percent. Wright deserved a hefty share of credit for that, as well, with primary defensive responsibility for Scottie Reynolds (Herndon), who made just 2 of 10 field goals, including 1 of 6 from three-point range.
If the upset signaled a turnaround for the Hoyas, it may have come too late.
Georgetown (15-12, 6-10) is ensured of finishing below .500 in conference play even if it wins its two remaining regular season games.
Asked to handicap his team's chance of making the NCAA tournament, Thompson demurred initially and then noted that the Hoyas have played one of the more rigorous schedules in the country. If the best 65 teams get in, he added, he felt his team was among them.
But it's doubtful Georgetown will be extended the honor absent a strong showing in the Big East tournament.
Based on Saturday's game, however, the qualitative difference between Villanova and Georgetown isn't as great as the Big East standings suggest. Villanova is fifth in the league; Georgetown is 12th, which places the Hoyas outside even the most robust projections for conference bids.
"At the end of the day, it's going to be a magnification of small differences," Thompson said of the conference standings. Villanova "has won games, and we haven't won games. Yes, there's a gulf between where they stand and we stand. But I don't think there is necessarily [a gulf] between us and any team when we walk on the court."