Throughout the Patrick Ewing years, Georgetown was an active, rather than a reactive, team. The burden of devising elaborate and intricate strategies for winning fell on their opponents, not on the Hoyas. In Ewing's last two seasons, at least, it is difficult to recall even a single game in which Georgetown could fairly be said to have been the underdog.
That wind has changed direction now, and if you were ever looking for proof of its shift, you could have felt it last night in the quarterfinals of the Big East tournament. Georgetown, which never has lost a Big East tournament game to a school other than Syracuse, lost again to the Orange, 75-73, in overtime. A very good team was beaten by a better one. Had it gone the other way, it would have been an upset. Georgetown is no longer the dominant team in the conference, and that fact was underlined by its elaborate approach to this game.
It is not denigrating Ralph Dalton to say that he has succeeded but not replaced Patrick Ewing. It's always easier to replace the spokes than the hub. Dalton is capable and courageous, but not compelling, and without Ewing, the Hoyas have become a perimeter team, a jump-shooting team, a "missile team," as John Thompson calls them. "I'm not going to try to make a missile team into a power team," Thompson said the other night after his best shooters -- Reggie Williams, David Wingate, Michael Jackson -- combined to shoot a horrid five for 21 in the second half against Pitt. "We're going to have to live and die by the jump shot."
But power is what the Hoyas need most; the lack of it is Georgetown's exposed flank and exploitable weakness. Where, it might be jokingly asked, is Michael Graham when you need him? Syracuse outrebounded the Hoyas by nine in their first meeting this season, and by 13 in their second. Knowing this, and realizing that the Hoyas could not play Syracuse straight-up because they didn't have as full a deck, Thompson went to a high-risk strategy emphasizing power and defense.
For power, he started 6-foot-8, 225-pound Ronnie Highsmith for the first time and played him 26 minutes. He was quick to bring 6-8, 240-pound Johnathan Edwards off the bench, and played him 28 minutes. With 6-11, 240-pound Dalton playing 34 minutes, Thompson never had fewer than two big, thick bodies on the court. This hadn't been done too often at Georgetown this season. Dalton had been averaging 25.6 minutes per game, Edwards 13 and Highsmith only 7.6. The result was that for most of the game, Syracuse's inside strength was hushed, and though the Hoyas were outrebounded, it was by the barest of margins, one, 36-35.
The complementary part of the strategy was to put Wingate man-to-man on Pearl Washington, to hound him as much as possible. Pearl is the alpha and omega of Syracuse's offense. When he is bothered, Syracuse is bothered. If Wingate was on the bench, resting, Charles Smith was busy pestering Pearl. If Georgetown went to a zone, Highsmith or Edwards -- one of the wide bodies -- flashed out to the point to harass Pearl. Although Pearl had 21 points and was his usual charismatic self, Wingate made three clean steals off him, and the aggressive strategy helped force Pearl into 11 turnovers. "They were really looking to contain Pearl more than they had in the past," said Syracuse Coach Jim Boeheim, drained after the game. "They did a great job. It seemed like we could never get the ball where we wanted it."
Essentially, then, Thompson, who often strikes me as having the instincts of an NFL defensive coordinator (and wouldn't he be a picture in those silly shorts and shoes they wear?) placed his bet on the hawkish defense we had seen so much of when Ewing was at Georgetown. What made this a high-risk strategy was Ewing's absence. Once beaten, the defense could have been beaten badly. Yet Syracuse never found the key to beating it. Georgetown had 12 steals, to only six for Syracuse, and that healthy advantage in steals kept Georgetown not just in this game, but on top of it throughout most of the first half.
On offense, other than the points created by steals and an occasional power move by Dalton or Edwards, there was, as ever, the jump shot, better, again, in the first half than the second. Wingate was a disappointing seven for 18, but Williams was seven for 14, and Jackson redeemed himself, shooting seven for 10. Those three, the experienced core of this Georgetown team, scored 24 of the Hoyas' last 28 points.
Did it work? Well, it came close, didn't it? "We had several opportunities to gain control of the game, but Georgetown wouldn't let us," Boeheim said. Had the unknown Howard Triche (rhymes with "wish"), who averages 7.1 points and 3.8 rebounds per game, not come up with 13 and 10, Georgetown would have sneaked into the tournament final. "Howard came up as big tonight as he had all year," a grateful Boeheim said. Then, wiping his brow, Boeheim gasped, "I don't know about you guys, but I'm tired."
It was that kind of game, physically and mentally exhausting for the players and the watchers. "I expected to win," Thompson said after the game. "I always expect to win. We don't play basketball to be close." But sometimes close is as close as it gets.