One little-bitty step after another, David Wingate worked his way through the locker room after Georgetown University's imperfect beginning in the NCAA basketball tournament.
Wingate walked like an old man with a bad back.
He's a young man with a bad back.
And that bad back may end Georgetown's season Sunday afternoon.
Beating an Alcorn State is no big deal for a Georgetown. Beating Alcorn State by five points when a national championship contender would have won by 25 is enough to cause even a Georgetown athletic bigwig to say, as one did tonight, "A thoroughly disagreeable evening."
Wingate strained muscles in his lower back at practice here Thursday afternoon. Just strained them warming up. Things like that happen after five months of pounding those muscles on basketball courts from Washington to Hawaii.
Tonight was disagreeable to the max for Wingate. The freshman forward is Georgetown's second-leading scorer with a 12.7 average. He's shooting 46 percent, mostly the tough shots an open-court player gets. Tonight he missed all six shots he took and threw the ball away five times. He had five points.
"I feel pretty good," Wingate said afterward.
An athlete's axiom: If you're injured, you don't play; if you play, you're not injured. So Wingate said he felt pretty good.
He must have felt lousy.
He certainly played as if he felt lousy. Normally a fine jumper with a rock-steady jump shot, Wingate was off balance with every shot tonight.
"When I'd stretch up, it would hurt some," he said.
Translation: it hurt like hell.
How about Sunday's game?
"A day's rest and it'll be back," Wingate said.
Without Wingate, this inefficient Georgetown team has small chance of beating Memphis State. Tonight's work was so disagreeable at so many levels of play that at game's end it seemed obvious this team is going nowhere but home--and soon--there to wait for another season to begin, a season in which it hopes to grow wiser in the ways important basketball games are won.
Against Alcorn State's quick little defenders, Georgetown lost the ball 21 times. Only John Thompson, the coach, might figure out from the film how many of those errors were forced by those defenders. "Their team hand quickness is very good," he said, breaking new ground in analysis. To the casual bystander, maybe half those 21 errors were born of Georgetown's simple inability to handle any kind of pressure, let alone Alcorn's hand quickness.
Foul trouble exposed a glaring Georgetown weakness, too. Guards Gene Smith, Michael Jackson and Horace Broadnax were on the bench with four fouls when Georgetown had a 58-46 lead with 8:35 to play. That left the Hoyas with the disagreeable chore of sending Patrick Ewing and four 'tweeners against those quick hands.
A 'tweener (for those who got lost here on the way to the comics) is a player who isn't a guard and isn't a forward. Size, among several things, decides that. At 58-46, Georgetown had this team out there: Ewing, Anthony Jones, Bill Martin, Fred Brown and Wingate.
Alcorn State's coach, Davey Whitney, is a wonderful tactician. He ordered a full-court press designed to put two defenders on the man with the ball. Ewing and the 'tweeners couldn't handle it.
Exactly 1 minute 52 seconds later, Georgetown's lead was down to 60-56. Things were so bad that one Keystone Kop sequence left the Hoyas in such confusion that . . . Well, here's the film, take a look for yourself.
Jones is trapped on the sideline, trying to move the ball across the midline. Two Alcorn State defenders are leaping across his field of vision. What to do?
Ewing is signalling timeout. He's afraid Jones is about to lose the ball on a 10-second violation.
Even as Ewing signals for the timeout, though, Jones lofts the ball across the midline to Smith, who, characteristically, flies about 917 miles per hour on the dribble toward the basket.
He hurries a pass to Martin. Martin is flying too fast. He fumbles the ball out of bounds.
And now Thompson himself wants a timeout before the confusion becomes terminal.
Once upon a time, such as last March, Thompson's Georgetown team created little works of art under pressure. Eric Smith, Eric Floyd and Ed Spriggs are gone now, their grace gone with them. The Hoyas of this March handle the ball as if it were thermonuclear and their palms were verrrrry sweaty. There's no one to give Ewing a breather, there's no strong forward, there's no one who wants the outside shot that Ewing's presence gave Floyd last season.
Brown isn't the same player, either. A bad knee has made him a sad caricature of the swashbuckling point guard of last March. He is trying to play on one leg that is worn out from carrying his body by itself.
"It's a little sore," he said after tonight's game.
Hurts like hell, he means.
Twice in the fading minutes tonight, Brown botched the in-bounds pass. Once he walked away from the spot marked by the referee, costing Georgetown the ball. With only 40 seconds to play and the Hoyas trying to run out the clock, he tossed an in-bounds pass off the other end of the court.
"It was pretty messy tonight," he said.
What does this one say about Sunday's game?
"Well, this was a game and we won it. That's the thing you want to do. For the freshmen, it was good to win. This was their first NCAA game, and it's good to get one under your belt."
Translation: no promises from the old hand.