It came three days early but John Thompson got just what he wanted for Christmas.
Because his Georgetown basketball team had spent the last two Saturdays destroying De Paul and Nevada-Las Vegas, most people had all but conceded the national championship to the Hoyas.
That was the last thing Thompson wanted anybody saying. He is like all coaches, much happier when people take pokes at his team than when they make champions of them. "There's no such thing as a superteam," Thompson insisted Saturday night after Georgetown had struggled before beating New Mexico, 69-61. "This is what we needed. We needed to have some fear put into us."
Georgetown (9-0), which has gotten into the habit of dismantling teams with its pressure in the second half, almost blew a 20-point lead. New Mexico (5-3) is a patient, well-coached team. It also proved to have something Georgetown opponents have lacked: perimeter shooting. It was a jump-shooting spree that brought the Lobos into the game.
It also brought on a tirade from Thompson. He likes to talk about "cussing and fussing" at his players and, during an early second-half timeout, he did plenty of both in sufficient decibels to be heard several rows away.
Thompson has yelled at his players before, but for the first time this season he had a legitimate reason. That, along with the Hoyas' poise down the stretch, may have explained his almost jovial postgame mood.
"I won't have any trouble with the film tonight," he said, almost savoring the thought of picking out his team's errors. Mainly, they consisted of rushing a little on offense when the crowd of 17,029 in The Pit got into the game; being a step slow a couple of times in the matchup zone defense, and letting the smaller Lobos get offensive rebounds in the second half.
Thompson also had a lot of positives to pleased about. Center Patrick Ewing, in the lineup after missing his first college game Wednesday (he had played 113 straight), had little difficulty with his bandaged left hand. Ewing had 14 points and, more important, blocked seven shots and controlled the middle.
Freshmen Grady Mateen and Perry McDonald continued to contribute. Thompson played the 6-foot-11 Mateen with the 7-foot Ewing much of the first half. Mateen made two jump shots and played intelligently inside. McDonald took five second-half rebounds, bringing back memories of ex-Hoya Fred Brown with his ability to get inside at 6-4 and get the ball.
McDonald's only notable mistake was mouthing off to an official and drawing a technical foul with 6:07 left. That led to a five-point play that pulled the Lobos within three points.
Thompson's team has gone through all its preleague drills: It has routed nonentities; it has outclassed two ranked teams at home, and it has held off a team before a roaring road crowd. All that remains now before Big East play is a trip to Puerto Rico this weekend for some R and R and a couple more runaways against opponents.
One of the spectators here Saturday was Los Angeles Lakers General Manager Jerry West. He came to see several players, most notably Georgetown forward Billy Martin.
"He's got a live body," West said after the game, impressed with Martin's quickness and leaping ability. "He's got a shot at being taken in the first round." Martin is the kind of player the Lakers observe closely because they are likely to draft late in the opening round. Last year at this time, Martin had been benched and was deep in Thompson's doghouse. He's come a long way in 12 months.
Coming so close to Georgetown was a major moral victory for New Mexico. The Lobos talked after the game as if they had won. "This was the greatest thrill of my career," center George Scott said, a typical comment in the Lobos' dressing room. Four years after the scandals here, Coach Gary Colson has rebuilt a solid program. The Lobos finished third in the Western Athletic Conference last year and could win it this season.
George Mason arrived in Birmingham for the UAB Classic to read in one newspaper that the host team, Alabama-Birmingham, had scheduled "three refugees from a Hostess Cupcake factory" for its tournament.
After George Mason undid the Blazers in the final Saturday night, 61-60, there was a lot of talk of cupcakes in the Patriots' locker room. "We're thinking about having a cupcake promotion when the kids get back," said George Mason publicist Carl Sell.
When Maryland arrived in Hawaii today for the Rainbow Classic in Honolulu, it was just one of a half-dozen glamor teams on the island. Sixth-ranked Southern Methodist was already there, having beaten 10th-ranked Oklahoma Saturday in the Chaminade tournament. Seventh-ranked Washington will be there, coming off its first loss, to Brigham Young. Georgia Tech, Arkansas and Iowa also are in town. North Carolina will arrive Christmas night from Japan.
Three tournaments involving 16 teams will take place in Hawaii this week. The island has become a basketball hotbed because games played there don't count against the NCAA's 28-game limit and because playing there is a major recruiting lure.
Maryland (8-1) will open the eight-team Rainbow Classic Christmas night against Iowa. Also in the field are Washington, Georgia Tech, Iowa State, Arkansas, Hawaii and Cornell.
The upset pick is now 0-3, losing by an average margin of 14.3 points. Some have suggested surrender. What! Did the 1962 New York Mets give up? Cornell will beat Hawaii in the first round of the Rainbow Classic Tuesday night.