As 12th-ranked Georgetown has marched its way through the Big East, cutting down one opponent after another, its players have managed to stay even-keeled, almost businesslike. But as the final buzzer sounded on the Hoyas' 61-53 victory over No. 10 Pittsburgh yesterday afternoon, the facade cracked -- slightly.
Jessie Sapp tossed the ball high into the air and then ran over to hug Jeff Green. Patrick Ewing Jr. stalked down the court, pulling at his jersey to emphasize the "Georgetown" written across the front. All the while, the 20,038 fans inside Verizon Center screamed and danced, celebrating the Hoyas' 11th straight victory, one that moved them a step closer to winning the Big East's regular season title.
If the Hoyas (22-5, 12-2) win at Syracuse (20-8, 9-5) tomorrow, they will clinch at least a share of the regular season title and earn the top seed in the conference tournament, because they will hold the tiebreaker over Pittsburgh (24-5, 11-3). Georgetown hasn't won a Big East regular season title since 1997, when the league was split in two divisions, and it hasn't been the top seed in the tournament since 1989.
"That feels nice," said junior center Roy Hibbert, who had 12 points, 5 rebounds and 4 blocked shots. "We have two more league games to play [at Syracuse and against Connecticut]. It'd be nice to bring home a regular season championship home to Georgetown."
The Hoyas didn't have their best performance in picking up their biggest win of the season, and this game didn't equal the first meeting between the teams in terms of quality of play. In Pittsburgh's 74-69 victory on Jan. 13 -- Georgetown's last loss -- both teams shot 60 percent from the field, and they combined for 38 assists and just 17 turnovers.
Yesterday, the Panthers shot just 32.8 percent from the field (19 for 58), but they attempted 20 more shots than Georgetown did, thanks to their work on the offensive glass (22 rebounds). Sophomore forward Sam Young (11 points) and senior center Aaron Gray (10 points) -- who played 21 minutes despite not practicing all week because of a sprained left ankle -- combined for nine of those offensive boards.
The Hoyas were sloppy with the ball (14 turnovers), especially in the first half. They committed turnovers on their first four possessions, and at times it seemed as if they were incapable of cleanly catching the ball. Coach John Thompson III said his players were "extremely" antsy for much of the first half.
"We had a lot of energy and we let it out the wrong way. We had a lot of turnovers," said Green, who played just 10 minutes, attempting two shots, in the first half due to foul trouble. "At halftime, Coach told us to calm down, and that's what we did in the second half. We just converted that energy into the defensive end. We got a lot of stops, a lot of big rebounds. That's what we didn't do in the first half."
Pittsburgh used a 13-0 run early in the second half to open up a 39-33 lead with 14 minutes 29 seconds remaining in the game. The Hoyas hurt themselves in that stretch, missing four consecutive free throws, giving up an offensive rebound that led to a basket, and fouling Mike Cook on a three-point attempt (he made all three free throws).
But as the Hoyas have done throughout their recent streak, they methodically worked their way back into the game. Their three most experienced players -- Green (14 points), Hibbert and guard Jonathan Wallace (17 points) -- stepped up with timely plays. Green and Hibbert became assertive inside, taking the ball to the basket. Wallace, who was also aggressive in driving to the hoop, made plays on defense, poking the ball away from Levance Fields and drawing a foul, and swiping a pass that led to a fast-break layup.
In the game's final minutes, the Hoyas did a much better job of rebounding.
"Even though they got all of those offensive rebounds, we got a couple of key ones," Thompson said. "Jeff Green came up with some key loose balls. . . . There were a couple of key possessions where we had to get it, and he went and got it. He willed his way to get the ball."
The Hoyas are now one game shy of setting a program record for most consecutive wins against Big East opponents. The 1984-85 team also won 11 straight games over conference foes, but that streak included both Big East and NCAA tournament games.
But that wasn't on their minds. The Hoyas were just happy with the one win. Hibbert said that it felt like a tournament game, because of the atmosphere and the opponent; since the start of the 2001-02 season, no Big East team has won as many conference games as the Panthers (70). Green said that it felt good to beat Pittsburgh, because the Hoyas wanted revenge for the earlier loss. Even Thompson, who is loath to step back and consider the big picture, had to concede that the Hoyas put themselves in a good spot.
"Today was a very good win -- don't get me wrong -- against a very good team," Thompson said. "You can't be unhappy about the position that we're in. Even I can't."