For more than three decades, Georgetown and Syracuse have set the standard for each other in men’s basketball, supplying each other’s greatest triumphs and most heart-rending defeats.
Saturday, their bitter rivalry came to the sweetest possible end for Georgetown, which routed its longtime nemesis, 61-39, in the final regular season clash as Big East foes to secure a victory that was laden with spoils.
With it, fifth-ranked Georgetown claimed a share of its first Big East regular season title since 2008, locked up the top seed in the upcoming Big East tournament and completed its first sweep of the reviled Orange since 2001.
But even as Georgetown’s students charged onto Verizon Center’s court to celebrate the most one-sided game in the series since January 1985, there was a measure of wistfulness, if not outright regret, in the air.
Despite the longstanding enmity, it’s a breakup no basketball fan, player or coach wanted to see, but one forced by the seemingly insatiable demand for more revenue at elite ranks of college sports.
Syracuse, which joined Georgetown in creating the Big East in 1979, is leaving the league this summer for the ACC and its promise of greater football riches. And Georgetown is breaking away June 30, along with its six compatriots that don’t compete in big-time football, to form a new, basketball-centric league that will repurpose the Big East name.
“I think it’s a damn disgrace,” former Georgetown Coach John Thompson Jr. said afterward of the demise of the league that dominated college basketball in its heyday, minted future NBA all-stars and made himself and Syracuse Coach Jim Boeheim, among others, Hall of Famers.
“We established something in the Northeast that we all could be proud of, and then a bunch of knuckleheads sat at the table — didn’t know a thing about basketball — and, without any concern for the fans, geographical boundaries, tore it apart,” said Thompson, who watched from his customary perch along the baseline and raised his Georgetown scarf in triumph when the game ended.
He wasn’t the only legend of the rivalry on hand. Former Georgetown center Patrick Ewing, who anchored the 1984 NCAA championship team, watched from a courtside seat across from the Hoyas bench, as did Alonzo Mourning.
“I’m disappointed that Syracuse is going to the ACC, but it’s a business decision for them,” Ewing said before tip-off. “When we were there, the Big East was the premier league. It was not the ACC, not any of those leagues. The Big East was the premier league.”
Drawing a crowd of 20,972, Saturday’s game set an attendance record for a college basketball game in the Washington area. Seats were even sold in the hockey press box at the arena’s upper reaches. Verizon Center rocked and reverberated as it hadn’t all season.
While orange-clad Syracuse fans were relegated to the upper tiers, hand-lettered signs proclaimed the complicated sentiment of the Hoyas faithful.
“Our Hatred Is Eternal,” read the biggest, which spanned two sections in the lower bowl. Another, hoisted by a Georgetown fan closer to the court, declared: “Coach Boeheim: It Will Not Be the Same Without You.”
With defense a hallmark of both teams, points were difficult to come by in the first half.
Syracuse (23-8, 11-7) did well denying free rein to Otto Porter Jr., who torched the Orange for 33 points two weeks earlier in Georgetown’s 57-46 upset at the Carrier Dome. That victory snapped Syracuse’s 38-game home winning streak.
But guards Markel Starks and D’Vauntes Smith-Rivera made plain that the Hoyas are more than a one-man team. They collaborated on Georgetown’s first 16 points and finished with 19 and 15 points respectively, coming up with huge three-pointers and steals.
After taking a 25-18 lead at the half, Georgetown (24-5, 14-4) broke open the contest on 12-0 and 6-0 scoring bursts in the second half. Smith-Rivera’s third three-pointer put Georgetown up by 21 with just more than seven minutes remaining to send the crowd into a shrieking delirium.
During the timeout that followed, Ewing was honored in a midcourt ceremony as one of the top 75 players in NCAA history.
The mood and the moment were so in Georgetown’s favor, it was almost like piling on from there. Boeheim could do little more than shrug as his players struggled against the Hoyas’ withering defense, and Georgetown fans taunted them with chants of “ACC!” “ACC!”
The loss scuttled Syracuse’s hopes of securing a coveted double-bye in the Big East tournament. Marquette and Louisville both won later Saturday to earn a share of the Big East regular-season title with the Hoyas.
Held without a field goal in the first half, Porter (10 points and a game-high eight rebounds and seven assists) got the scoring going from the free throw line to start the second period. And Syracuse, which hadn’t led since 3-0, only fell further in arrears.
Afterward, Boeheim was unstinting in his praise of Georgetown’s defense, its guards and Porter, whom he declared should be the No. 1 pick in the NBA draft.
While disappointed in his team’s performance, Boeheim didn’t seem overly troubled by the margin of defeat, placing the loss in the context of a rivalry that has paid incalculable dividends over 34 years. “You don’t remember one game or two,” Boeheim said. “You remember the total package of the series. . . . This game is a blip on the radar. We’ve had more than our fair share of success. It has been an unbelievable experience for all the schools, all the players and fans.”