Why Georgetown will play for the NCAA championship and Louisville will not can best be seen by reducing 40 furious minutes of basketball today to five cerebral seconds by Eric Smith. Like the team early on, Smith made an error--but kept it from being catastrophic.
With 2:36 left and a seven-point lead, Smith was caught in a double-team trap near midcourt. Peering around flailing arms and high-stepping legs, he could find no open Hoya. One second. Two seconds. Three. Panic time for most players. Two more ticks and a held-ball would be called. So why did Smith seem serene?
He knew something worse could happen.
"I might get it called against me," he said later, "but I'd realized we'd still have the ball (on the alternate-possession rule)."
Nice. In the whitest heat of the game of his life, Smith remembered a tiny, telling detail from dozens of plays before. Georgetown failed to score on the resulting inbounds play, but that bit of thinking kept Louisville from scoring for nearly another minute.
At that point, a minute was worth several points. By beating the clock, by ultimately not beating themselves, the Hoyas beat Louisville, 50-46.
It's not a good idea to give the Hoyas time to collect their wits in an unfamiliar situation, another good team discovered. The Hoyas and Cardinals each were dreadfully nervous the first half of this NCAA semifinal; ironically, the team with the most final four experience lost its poise first.
Every player on the court lost a struggle with his emotions sometime during the first 20 minutes. Georgetown had 13 turnovers and two air balls; Eric Floyd had three fouls and missed four of the five field goals he tried. Louisville had 10 turnovers.
But Georgetown seemed in control by more than what the scoreboard said: 24-22.
Even though it struggled so with the ball, Georgetown was swell again without it. The two Erics, Pat Ewing, Ed Spriggs and Fred Brown lost lots of scoring chances early on, but never their heads.
"Can't remember us appearing to play so poorly offensively," Coach John Thompson said, "and still winning the game."
Hoya history includes players and even Thompson being uncomfortable at each new rung during their climb to the collegiate elite. First time is trouble; second time success. So their fans were uneasy about this new adventure, especially against a team with four starters from the 1980 NCAA champions.
What would happen if a Louisville press often as fierce as its own put Georgetown in a hole early?
What did happen was Georgetown trading defensive punches with the veterans, becoming more comfortable in this unique setting and finally being close to dominant the final 10 minutes.
Thompson and his players made all the right moves in the second half, from sensing when to bring foul-plagued Floyd back into the game to staying patient with Cardinals flying at them from all angles. They had just five turnovers the second half.
By contrast, Louisville was too anxious too soon, and had no game-long jump shooter to counter Ewing's denying them layups. With Georgetown ahead by five, the Cardinals wasted two fine scoring chances, the last of which prompted Thompson's final bit of winning strategy.
Because Georgetown had escaped back-to-back assaults, Thompson waited no longer to use his delay offense. With seven minutes left, up popped Floyd from the bench. Louisville never got closer than three.
Somehow, Georgetown almost always had its best foul shooter at the free-throw line near the end. Picking a player the Cardinals should have pecked hard enough to foul in the waning minutes, most fans chose the former mail truck driver, Spriggs.
They never got him.
"Wanted to get the ball out of my hands," Spriggs said, "and back to Eric (Smith) as quick as I could (after the inbounds pass against the Louisville press). Let him get me the ball and pitch it back."
Smith would feed him that first pass; Spriggs would swat it right back.
With the exception of Smith, the first Hoya outside player willing to challenge Louisville inside, Thompson had little public praise for any player. He did admit Ewing's jumping up and down on defense, what the coach called the player's "presence," was more important than his offensive numbers (eight points).
"Our defense saved us," he said.
Like every other team in every other sport, Louisville's attack was based on what Georgetown would allow. Ewing rejects anything in an imaginary rectangle about 10 feet by 10 feet from the basket. The Cardinals' primary guards were six for 19 from the field.
Eaves once grabbed the rebound from a missed free throw, thought about taking the ball up hard and then thought again. Ewing was lurking. Flustered, Eaves tried to maneuver, to get the rim between the 7-footer and his hands. En route, he took too many steps.
The team theme played again for the Hoyas; they were not overjoyed in victory. Happy. Quick to acknowledge fans, some of whom seemed to be seated in another county, and glance at signs such as: "For the Hoyas, every day is St. Patrick's Day."
"We know there's still another tough 40 minutes ahead of us Monday night," said Spriggs.