Every team has its "what if" after playing Georgetown. Today, Pittsburgh sat around thinking about what might have happened if Curtis Aiken, its snappy point guard, had not gone to the bench with four fouls early in the second half with the score tied.
With Aiken out of the lineup almost four minutes, top-ranked Georgetown scored 10 of the next 12 points and took its 28th straight victory, 65-53, over the Panthers before a record 16,532 in the Civic Arena.
Chances are the Hoyas (17-0, 6-0 in the Big East this season) would have found a way to win anyway. But Pitt Coach Roy Chipman said, "The biggest turning point of this game came when Curtis picked up that fourth foul. Now that hurt."
GU Coach John Thompson didn't disagree.
"Any time a key player gets in foul trouble, it affects the game," he said. "But especially against us, losing a back-court man hurts. Our game is so much pressure in the back court, you need your floor leader."
Pitt (9-5, 1-3) had taken a 26-24 lead, breaking a halftime tie, on Aiken's first basket of the game, a jump shot from about 15 feet. Patrick Ewing, who scored 18 points and blocked five shots, made a turnaround jumper to tie the score at 26.
Aiken committed his fourth foul shortly thereafter, and one could see the Panthers droop a bit.
"It hit us pretty bad," said freshman forward Charles Smith, who led Pitt with 16 points. "Curtis has such good perception about coming back to get the ball. Without him, we had trouble just throwing the ball in the corners."
The Hoyas, not a team to waste opportunities, seemed to step up the pressure. After Smith retied the game at 28 with a jumper, Ewing made a finger roll -- he hit all four of his shots in the second half -- to give Georgetown the lead for good.
Charles Thompson, in for Aiken, committed a traveling violation and Reggie Williams capitalized with a jumper for a 32-28 lead, Georgetown's biggest to that point. Michael Jackson made it a four-point lead again, 34-30, with a jumper. Then came probably the game's biggest defensive play.
Pitt had the ball and a chance to get within two. Joey David, handling the ball more with Aiken on the bench, was dribbling downcourt freely -- when David Wingate pulled off a wonderfully sneaky steal.
Wingate waited until David relaxed, then ran up behind him and tipped the ball away to a teammate. Billy Martin scored a dunk in the transition, and the lead was 36-30.
"We practice that drill," Wingate said of his steal. "I felt I could use my speed to come from behind and tip the ball away. I tried to set him up."
David said, "Yes, I sure do remember the play; I was on the bench after that. I was hesitating, wondering whether to keep on going or stop. Usually someone calls out, 'Look out!' or something. But he did it so quickly, nobody had a chance to warn me."
Wingate's play was probably worth much more than one basket. Almost every game, Georgetown starts a 10- or 12-point run with a great defensive play. And as Wingate said later, "In a way, you can sense when it's coming. One defensive play, and everybody's ready to go. At that point, we're kind of hard to stop once we get going."
Georgetown was going, all right. Ewing blocked a shot by David and the play led to a layup by Wingate, who would go on to match Ewing's 18 points. That made it 38-30.
Chipman called time for Pitt with 13:05 to play, and got Aiken back into the game. But Ewing ran the Georgetown lead to 40-30 with two free throws.
Pitt did pull within six a couple of times, but it soon was 10 and holding.
Pitt's Smith, a 6-foot-10 freshman, showed the makings of a fabulous player. "I'm really impressed with him," Thompson said. Against the toughest defense in the nation, Smith made seven of 12 shots. He probably should have shot more.
"I was just sitting here thinking about that," Smith said. "Now that the game is over, I wish I did take a few more. But I kept looking for the ideal shot, or the perfect situation. I was fairly open a couple of times, but passed up the shot."
Georgetown didn't play as crisply as Thompson would have liked, especially in the first half. "We had a difficult time getting started (Pitt led, 5-0)," he said, "but I attribute that to Pitt's defense."
Part of it might also be attributed to the fact that Georgetown, Thompson said, spent a lot of practice time this week on the half-court offense. "They were trying to do what I wanted done, and not taking their shots," Thompson said.
Wingate gave the Panthers fits.
"David Wingate is the toughest guy for us to guard besides Ewing," Chipman said. "We don't have a small forward who is as quick as him, who can keep him from putting the ball on the floor and just going."
Georgetown left with Thompson not wanting his players worrying about these close games against conference opponents.
"People expect us to come out and be Superman and go up by 50 points the first five minutes," Thompson said. "I was fussing at them at the end of the game, but was real sweet at halftime; I sat and talked to them quietly. And they laughed at me . . . But because we're supposed to be so good, it's very easy to think you're letting yourselves and letting the world down."