By Tarik El-Bashir
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, February 14, 2011; 12:10 AM
When Austin Freeman hobbled to the home locker room with a sprained ankle late in the first half Sunday, Georgetown's romp through the Big East seemed to be in as much doubt as its star player's return to the game.
Freeman, though, simply wouldn't allow the Hoyas' afternoon - or their winning streak - to end that way. In a game that will be remembered for its grittiness in the clutch, the senior guard returned in pain, his ankle heavily taped, to help lift No. 11 Georgetown to a 69-60 victory over Marquette at Verizon Center.
Thanks to Freeman's heroics - as well as a 20-point performance from fellow senior Chris Wright and career-high 13 rebounds from Hollis Thompson - the Hoyas' winning streak stands at eight games, their longest since an 11-game run in 2006-07. It also marks the fifth time in seven seasons Georgetown (20-5, 9-4) has won 20 games under Coach John Thompson III and puts it in sole possession of third place in the league standings behind Pittsburgh and Notre Dame.
But there was a moment just before halftime when all of that was in question. Marquette's Jae Crowder landed on Freeman's leg in the final seconds of a sometimes unsightly first half that ended with the Hoyas trailing, 35-31, getting outworked on the glass and shooting 28.6 percent from three-point range.
"We didn't play well," Coach Thompson said. "We had to start to do a better job on the boards and start to make the hustle plays."
The rally Thompson had hoped to see began with their leading scorer returning to the bench to chants of "Aus-tin Free-man" from the crowd of 14,284.
"I was in an awkward position and it rolled," Freeman said. "I was in pain, but I played through it."
It's a good thing he did.
Freeman scored eight of his 17 points in the final 20 minutes, including a baseline jumper that gave the Hoyas their first lead of the game, 42-41. The game turned in the Hoyas' favor a few minutes later when reserve center Henry Sims (seven points) scored a layup and a drew fifth foul from Davante Gardner. Sims's three-point play put Georgetown ahead 55-50, and the absence of the 6-foot-8, 290-pound Gardner opened up the middle of the paint.
On the Hoyas' next possession, Freeman scored a layup - with a nice assist from Wright - that put them ahead 57-50.
"That was a big turning point," Wright said of Sims's three-point play. "Then Austin got an easy layup, and after that, we just had to get stops."
Well, it wasn't quite that simple. Darius Johnson-Odom (team-high 20 points) picked off an errant inbounds pass by Wright and laid the ball in to cut Georgetown's lead to 63-60 with 1 minute 41 seconds remaining.
"He made a good play," Wright said. "It was bad judgment. I was beating myself up after the game because I made a couple of bad plays down the stretch."
But a dunk by Julian Vaughn on the ensuing Georgetown possession opened a 65-60 lead. Then Wright and Jason Clark forced a back-court violation on Dwight Buycks and Marquette had to foul. Clark and Thompson, meantime, each hit a pair of free throws to clinch an inelegant but satisfying victory that also handed Marquette (15-10, 6-6) its largest margin of defeat this season.
Afterward, Thompson conceded that his players took too many three-pointers in the first half. They missed their first seven attempts from long range and finished the game shooting 25.9 percent (7 for 27), their worst performance from beyond the arc since hitting only 25 percent in the loss to Pittsburgh nine games ago.
"Sometimes we shoot well, sometimes we don't," said Wright, who also had five assists and five turnovers. "It happens. We ground it out today."
In the second half, the Hoyas continued to search unsuccessfully for their shooting touch. So they turned to a different way to win: They outrebounded the Golden Eagles, 19-16, in the final 20 minutes, came up with four of their five steals and produced another strong defensive effort, holding their normally efficient opponent to only 31.8 percent shooting in the half.
"They were getting every loose ball in the first half, they were making the hustle plays in the first half," Thompson said. "But in the second half I feel we did."
Getting the win, though, wasn't the only reason Thompson was relieved.
"Is he at 100 percent? No," he said of Freeman. But "standing here now, do I think that will affect Wednesday [at Connecticut]? Not at all."