The start of Georgetown's Big East Conference opener tonight was even worse than Coach Craig Esherick had feared. The Hoyas scored just four points in the final 16 minutes of the first half, fought back in a game sloppy to the point of being comical at times but suffered a 55-48 loss to Providence.

Of the first half, when Georgetown had twice as many turnovers as field goals and scored just 15 points, Esherick said: "Providence set a tone [while rushing to a 23-11 lead]. . . . I don't know if I can remember us shooting so poorly [6 for 29]. I was trying different combinations, different things to do, different things to say to the guys, what to run."

From a 15-point deficit at halftime, the Hoyas fought back to within 46-45 with 3 minutes 31 seconds left on a drive and free throw by point guard Kevin Braswell. But freshman point guard Abdul Mills hit a 14-foot jumper as the shot clock was about to expire, the Hoyas rushed some shots in the next few possessions and the Friars hit just enough foul shots.

Georgetown (8-4) shot just 30 percent for the game, but rallied and then stayed close because Providence made just 7 of its 18 foul shots. The teams committed a total of 41 fouls, and in a telling statistic for the Hoyas, they turned over the ball 20 times with Providence (8-6) credited for just three steals.

"This was an old-fashioned Big East tug of war at its best," said Providence Coach Tim Welsh. "Knock down, drag out, throwing each other all over the place. This game could have been played five years ago, 10 years ago, 20 years ago."

Esherick's overall assessment of his team's offense changed the more he thought about it. The shooting was horrid, but the ball-handling at times was almost beyond belief.

"Our weakness now, in terms of offense, is passing," he said. "We threw a whole lot of bad passes."

The Friars had lots of reasons not to play well, history being one. They had lost their last nine conference openers, were using players much less experienced than Georgetown's and were forced to go without injured point guard John Linehan.

"If Linehan had played," Esherick said, "we might have lost by 30."

But Providence was clearly more aggressive from the start, when 7-foot-2 center Karim Shabazz stuffed a follow-up in the first minute. The Hoyas stayed close, with Braswell's foul shot creating an 11-11 tie with 16:06 left. From that point until halftime, the Hoyas went scoreless for nearly nine minutes and scored only on a three-point play by power forward Jameel Watkins and another Braswell foul shot.

Watkins was 4 for 6 the first half, but everyone else for Georgetown was 4 for 23.

"They came out with a lot of energy," said center Ruben Boumtje Boumtje, "made some pretty easy baskets."

The battle between 6-11 1/2 Boumtje Boumtje and Shabazz was close to a draw and much more brief than expected because both had early foul trouble and spent about half the game on the bench. Mills was quite good in place of Linehan, turning the ball over just once in 29 minutes against as fierce a defense as the Hoyas could muster.

"Coach told us we had to chip, chip, chip away at the lead." said Braswell.

The Georgetown players and Esherick were critical of the shot selection when the game was close.

"I took some dumb shots," Braswell admitted.

"We've got to go continue to work," forward Nat Burton said, "keep our confidence, cheer each other."