Eric Smith noticed a little thing.
This was in the last minute today.
Smith is a senior on the Georgetown University basketball team. He noticed a little thing in the Wyoming freshman guard named Rodney Gowens. Smith noticed Gowens holding the ball in both hands and seeming to fake passes.
He wasn't faking passes.
He was having a freshman's nervous breakdown.
"Doing this," Smith said later, moving his hands jerkily, as if unable to decide what to do with the cursed ball, "is a sign of the shakes."
Because Georgetown's elder statesmen--the distinguished Eric Smith, Eric Floyd and Ed Spriggs--worked with savoir-faire born of experience, the Hoyas beat Wyoming today, 51-43. They scored the game's last five points in 78 seconds that were the definition of that elusive word, experience.
Discipline, says Bobby Knight, is doing what you have to do when you have to do it and doing it all the time. Easy to say. Actually doing the necessary is where experience matters. Experience is discipline perfected under stress.
Rodney Gowens, poor kid, failed today because he'd never been asked to handle the ball in the last minute of an NCAA tournament game that depended on him.
Smith noticed it. "He hadn't played all day," Smith said, "and there he was in the last minute." A predator smelling fear in his prey, Smith saw the kid shaking the ball in indecision. Smith jumped inside the kid's shirt.
Gowens played only the last three minutes today. Against Georgetown's zone, Gowens dribbled to left with 30 seconds to play. That's Smith's side. Gowens backed off because Smith made a perfect step-in move. Backing off, Gowens tried to snap a quick pass inside.
It sailed out of bounds.
Score one for experience.
Wait. Score two for experience, because barely had the ball flown out of bounds before Smith and Floyd made another play, a killing play, that only disciplined old hands would make.
As soon as the referee handed Smith the ball out of bounds, Smith looked for Floyd. In Georgetown's offense against a press, the first look is for Floyd breaking loose behind everyone.
"I called it as soon as I saw the defense," Smith said.
"When I saw the way they set up, I knew it would work," Floyd said.
Poor Rodney Gowens. Floyd took off toward the Georgetown basket. Smith put a lob pass over midcourt. Floyd took it over his shoulder. With Gowens chasing along behind, Floyd made a layup that gave Georgetown a 49-43 lead with 24 seconds to go.
Poor, poor Rodney. He again had the ball and again moved down Smith's side of the defense. Smith stole the ball from the kid and, fouled on the theft, made two free throws with six seconds left.
The quickest glance at John Thompson's record tells he is a good coach. His Georgetown teams have won 203 games in 10 seasons. The guy is a great coach. His teams have won running, they have won walking, and they have always won with discipline and defense. Like race car drivers whose reactions are measurably faster in moments when panic would paralyze most people, Thompson's players are better under pressure than free of it.
That is no accident. Thompson used his three big freshmen a lot today, but took out Anthony Jones and Bill Martin in the late minutes, leaving only Pat Ewing in the game. "Not in crucial times," Thompson said of his three-freshman unit. "Not when it's time for jitters."
Smith had 13 points today, four in the last two minutes. Floyd had 11, Spriggs nine. The freshmen scored a total of 12. The important thing is, the freshmen played at least 12 minutes each in an NCAA game in front of about 9,000 people cheering like crazy for the other team. Experience comes in little pieces, and Thompson thinks some of next season when Smith, Floyd and Spriggs won't be back.
"We lose the guys who've been through the jitters of the NCAA," the coach said.
Experience makes the coach better, too.
Thompson took a calculated risk this week. Because there was only one day to prepare for whichever team won the Wyoming-Southern Cal game, Thompson gambled that Wyoming would win. He worked two days on Wyoming stuff, looking at films, running an offense against a packed-in zone.
Studying Wyoming that much, Thompson saw the Cowboys stop to run a half-court offense whenever they beat a press.
"So we gambled more on defense," Thompson said, "knowing they'd stop and we'd get a chance to set up our half-court defense."
Another thing about gambling: Thompson thought it important to fly at Wyoming early because a first-round bye left his team idle for a week. "If we were going to make mistakes, I wanted to make them early," he said.
Thompson said everybody, not only Rodney Gowens, has jitters early.
"At the Holiday Festival once, John Duren came off the court to me and said, 'You have to get Eric out of here, he's scared to death.' "
Eric Floyd came out of that game.
Three seasons later, he is an all-America guard.