Georgetown's basketball coach, John Thompson, walked out of the Pit tonight grinning broadly. His team had almost blown a 20-point lead to New Mexico. He had seen lots of mistakes. He had been in a struggle for the first time all season.
And so, after the Hoyas had held off the Lobos, 69-61, before 17,029, he had one thing to say: "This is exactly what we needed."
What they needed and what they got was a scare.
After victories over Nevada-Las Vegas and De Paul that had people using the word superteam, Thompson had fretted that the Hoyas (9-0) might get cocky. Tonight, leading by 48-29 after 22 minutes, they looked like they were on the way to another rout.
"We played their game the first half and that's why we got so far behind," said Johnny Brown, New Mexico's high scorer with 19 points. "Then in the second half we slowed things down, made it a half-court game and came back."
The comeback was stopped in the last four minutes when Billy Martin (12 points) made two jumpers in the lane and Patrick Ewing (14 points, seven blocked shots) made another to highlight a 6-0 run that turned a shaky 60-57 lead into a comfortable 66-57 one. David Wingate led the Hoyas with 16 points, 14 of them in the first half.
"This was a good game for us," Martin said. "We know we'll face this kind of crowd in the Big East so it was good to have a game where we had to have poise at the end."
For a long time it looked as if the end would be strictly garbage time. On the first possession of the game, Ewing who had missed his first game, Wednesday against Morgan State (after 113 straight), showed no ill effects from his sprained left hand, blocking two shots. That started a 10-0 deluge, causing New Mexico Coach Gary Colson to call time with 2:30 into the game to calm his team down.
Even after the Lobos (5-3) finally scored on Brown's layup with 15:55 left, the Hoyas dominated, running their break beautifully, controlling the boards (23-15) and shooting from everywhere on their way to a 44-27 halftime lead.
But two minutes into the second half, the game suddenly changed. From 48-29, the Lobos ran 12 straight points, causing Thompson to call two timeouts -- one to demand angrily of his team in the huddle, "What is going on out there," the other to soothe and calm in the face of a suddenly turned-on crowd that was turning this aptly named building into a madhouse.
"It wasn't that we thought the game was over or anything," said Michael Jackson of New Mexico's run. "It was just that they got a few loose balls and hit a couple of tough shots while we missed some open ones. It happens. We know we can lose. I'm just glad we didn't tonight."
Thompson was more succinct: "I think for 25 minutes they might have been in awe of us. Then they realized we were human and played very well."
Actually, both teams played well during the frenzied final 15 minutes. "At half, we said our goal was to get it to 10 with 10 to play," Brown said. "When we got it to seven with 13:07 left (48-41), we were in shock."
So was Georgetown. Maybe it was the altitude (5,200 feet) but for the first time this season the Hoyas made mortal mistakes. Ewing even missed two straight foul shots during the five-minute scoreless stretch as the Hoyas took a brief dose of their own medicine. Martin finally broke the string with a 17-footer just inside the key that made it 50-41 with 12:40 to go.
But the Lobos were patient and used a little pressure of their own. "We found out in the first half rather quickly what they could do to us in a full-court game," Colson said. "We had to slow the pace."
With each possession suddenly important, the game turned into a chess match. The Hoyas still were leading, 56-48, when a strange five-point possession made it a three-point game.
It began with 6:11 left when Reggie Williams fouled Brown as he went to the basket. There had already been words and shoves exchanged a couple of times and this time, freshman Perry McDonald ended up saying something he shouldn't have. He drew a technical.
Brown made one of two on the personal, then Eastern High School graduate Kelvin Scarborough made the technical. New Mexico kept possession on the technical. Scarborough missed a jump shot, but when George Scott (13 points) put in the rebound, Ewing fouled him. Scott's foul shot made it 56-53 and Ewing had four fouls.
"Right there we had a chance," Brown said. "But we let down just a little and you can't do that against them. They're too good."
It was more Georgetown getting up than New Mexico letting down that decided the game finally. It was still a three-point game, 60-57, with 3:47 to go. Then Martin flashed through the lane and made a stop-and-pop jumper.
"The coaches had told me to take that shot because it was open," Martin said. "I had been getting it all night and passing. There, I knew it was time to shoot."
Ewing got the ball inside to make it 64-57. Brown missed and Martin made the same shot with 1:10 left and New Mexico's run at a miracle was over.
Georgetown had another victory, it had come through a tough road game as a warmup for the conference and, most important, Thompson had lots of mistakes to point out to his team in case it started to believe that superteam stuff it had been hearing.
As he sipped his postgame milk, Thompson had one last comment: "Now, maybe they'll believe me when I tell them there are still a lot of mistakes to be corrected."