By Tarik El-Bashir
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, March 6, 2011; D07
CINCINNATI - Three weeks ago, the Georgetown men's basketball team was riding an eight-game winning streak and appeared capable of playing deep into March.
But after Saturday's 69-47 loss to Cincinnati in the regular season finale, the 17th-ranked Hoyas are a team in turmoil. Austin Freeman and his teammates left Fifth Third Arena reeling from their worst loss of the season and dogged by the same question that's haunted them for the past 10 days: Can they win without senior guard Chris Wright?
The Hoyas got off to a fast start, but soon fell into the trap set by the Bearcats, whose game plan was to wear down Freeman and Jason Clark - Georgetown's primary ballhandlers while Wright nurses a broken hand - with relentless pressure.
The strategy worked to perfection.
Freeman scored a game-high 21 points but shot 7 of 23 from the field, including 1 of 7 from beyond the arc. Clark, meantime, was 1 of 8 from long range and finished with five points. Overall, the Hoyas shot 4 of 18 (22.2 percent) from three-point range to the Bearcats' 9 for 22 (40.9). Georgetown has lost three straight and four of five.
"Whether that was a factor or not, who knows?" Cincinnati Coach Mick Cronin said of the effect the Bearcats' pressure had on Freeman and Clark. "But they were 2 for 15" from three-point range.
Cincinnati junior Yancy Gates added, "They got frustrated and a little bit tired because everyone was taking on an extra load with Chris Wright injured."
Despite the loss, the Hoyas (21-9, 10-8) secured the No. 8 seed in this week's Big East tournament - thanks to Connecticut's loss to Notre Dame - and a bye into the second round. They'll open postseason play at noon on Wednesday at Madison Square Garden against either ninth-seeded Connecticut or 16th-seeded DePaul.
Georgetown Coach John Thompson III gave Cincinnati's defense its due - the Bearcats held the Hoyas to a combined 28.7 percent from the field (29 of 101) in the teams' two meetings - but said the root cause of his team's offensive woes was in the ineffectiveness of its big men.
Senior center Julian Vaughn was held scoreless for the first time in more than a year, going 0 for 4. He was also limited to only 16 minutes because of foul trouble. In the season series with the Bearcats, Vaughn has shot a combined 1 of 13.
"We played them twice and Julian Vaughn got one basket," Cronin said. "The fact that we eliminated their low post play in both games made them a one-dimensional team."
"In both games, our perimeter shooting was partially a function of our lack of presence inside," Thompson said.
Despite all that, the Hoyas still had a chance, albeit a brief one, to make of game of it in the second half after swingman Hollis Thompson made one of his two three-pointers with 8 minutes 43 seconds remaining. It cut the Hoyas' deficit to 43-39, but that's as close as they would get.
Sean Kilpatrick made a three-pointer on Cincinnati's next possession, and the Bearcats, who also got 14 points from Dion Dixon and 13 from Gates, went on a 17-2 run that put the game out of Georgetown's reach. With the win, Cincinnati (24-7, 11-7) clinched the No. 7 seed in the conference tournament.
During the Bearcats' decisive run, they outrebounded the Hoyas 5-1. For the game, they edged the visitors, 37-25, on the glass.
"We got them to miss the shot, but we didn't get the rebounds," Hollis Thompson said.
The game got off to a promising start for the Hoyas, who quieted a near-capacity crowd on Cincinnati's Senior Day by racing out 12-4 lead. But the Bearcats quickly went back to the formula that worked so well for them in the teams' first meeting, a 58-46 Cincinnati win on Feb. 23: they pressured the ball all over the floor.
Georgetown, as a result, made only four field goals over the final 13:18 of the first half, which ended with Freeman getting called for a technical foul for gesturing toward a referee and Gates banking a three-pointer off the glass at the buzzer to send Cincinnati into the locker room ahead 30-24.
"To see him make that three, sending them into the locker room with momentum was tough," John Thompson said.
But that was a minor setback compared with what's really troubling Thompson these days.
"With Chris Wright sitting on the bench in a suit, not being able to play, the group that's in that locker room can win," he said. "We have to get to that point."