NEW YORK — Ill will from a bygone era of Big East basketball resurfaced Wednesday night. Fittingly in the first game celebrating the 35th anniversary of the conference tournament, Georgetown and St. John’s provided a throwback to the contentious rivalry that in large part helped elevate the league to national acclaim.
The first-round showdown ended with the ninth-seeded Hoyas losing, 74-73, after junior guard L.J. Peak missed a layup in the final seconds and sophomore forward Marcus Derrickson’s putback came tantalizing close to falling before rolling off the rim as the buzzer sounded at Madison Square Garden.
The dramatic ending not just to the game but also to Georgetown’s second straight losing season unfolded roughly 8½ minutes after St. John’s Coach Chris Mullin and Hoyas assistant Patrick Ewing Jr. each were assessed technicals on the heels of a hard foul that sent Peak falling beyond the baseline.
Red Storm assistants and players had to restrain Mullin as he jawed with Ewing Jr., the son of Patrick Ewing, the most decorated player in Georgetown history.
“It’s just the heat of battle,” Hoyas Coach John Thompson III said. “Tempers flared a little bit. At the end of the day, Chris is all right.”
Mullin, meanwhile, spoke with Ewing Jr. following the Hoyas’ second straight loss to No. 8 seed St. John’s (14-18) in an attempt to de-escalate tensions before the teams left the court.
“I asked him if he was going to beat me up like his father did,” Mullin said with a wry grin.
The final margin in front of an announced crowd of 14,803 was the closest the Hoyas got down the stretch. The tense finish came amid uncertainty surrounding the status of Thompson III, whose father, John Thompson Jr., was the architect of a program that won the 1984 national championship as well as six Big East tournament titles during the 1980s, the most in a single decade by any Big East school.
That legacy has made the business of discussing Thompson III’s job security particularly uncomfortable despite Georgetown having ended the season losing six in a row and destined to miss the NCAA tournament for the third time in four seasons.
Thompson, who has faced calls for his dismissal from students, alumni and others among the fan base, declined to speculate on his future during Georgetown’s postgame news conference.
“Not tonight,” he said. “I’m worried about the group that’s in [the locker room] right now, the student-athletes that are in there right now, how they’re feeling right now, so not tonight.”
A 9-2 surge from St. John’s had the Hoyas facing a 51-43 deficit with 14:42 left in the second half. Georgetown’s only points came from sophomore center Jessie Govan, with his short jumper preceding Malik Ellison’s steal and dunk and layups from Bashir Ahmed and Federico Mussini.
Thompson called a timeout with 14:36 to play, and the Hoyas emerged with consecutive baskets from Derrickson and Peak, who scored 22 of his 24 points in the second half. Redshirt senior Bradley Hayes dunked, and Peak sank 1 of 2 free throws to get Georgetown within 53-52 with 11:32 to play.
Leading for much of the first half, Georgetown trailed at intermission 38-34 after St. John’s got a one-handed dunk from Ahmed, two free throws from Ellison and Shamori Ponds’s floater over Kaleb Johnson, who played elevated minutes with Peak and Derrickson weathering early foul issues. Also in foul trouble in the first half was Govan.
With three of the Hoyas’ most skilled scorers on the bench, Rodney Pryor instead provided the offensive punch, including a highlight-worthy left-handed dunk that gave Georgetown a 30-28 lead with 4:11 to play in the first half.
Defending without fouling has been a recurring malady throughout the past few seasons for the Hoyas, who entered committing 20.9 fouls per game. That ranks 308th out of 347 teams in Division I.
Georgetown had its full complement of players at the beginning of a 13-1 run to move in front 18-9 with 13:29 left until halftime. Derrickson scored the first six points in that time, including a three-pointer and two-handed dunk with Pryor on the bench after landing hard and bleeding from his forehead.
Team trainer Shawn Hendi patched up the cut, and Pryor reentered to score five quick points, leading to a timeout from Mullin, who’s in his second year coaching but holds a special place in program lore after being named three-time Big East player of the year during the 1980s.
“Obviously it was everywhere,” Hoyas junior forward Akoy Agau said of calls for a coaching change. “People were talking about it on campus, in the media and all these different things. At the end of the day, it’s really about the guys in the locker room and not outside things, comments about what Coach should do, what he shouldn’t do, should he be fired or whatever.”