Not given to hyperbole, Georgetown Coach John Thompson III said nonetheless that he’d never been part of a game like Friday’s against Tennessee — a misfiring mess on both teams’ parts, in which the Hoyas eked out a 37-36 victory.
Then, after a pause, Thompson corrected himself.
“Actually, I have been part of a game like this!” the coach added. “I think I was 8, playing with Saint Anthony’s. The game ended 13-11. I had 10, and we won.”
Even as defensive struggles go, Georgetown’s victory as part of the SEC/Big East Challenge was hardly a thing of beauty. For long stretches, it was painful for even the 13,656 Hoyas faithful on hand to behold, riddled with point-blank shots that clanged off the rim and others that kissed nothing but air.
Georgetown failed to hit a single field goal in the last 10 minutes of the first half, allowing Tennessee to close the period on a 7-0 run and take an 18-16 lead at the break. In the second half, neither team scored after 4 minutes 10 seconds remained on the clock, when Georgetown’s Markel Starks hit what proved to be the game-winner.
Tennessee had numerous chances to win it, particularly when Georgetown’s Otto Porter Jr. mishandled a pass with 23 seconds remaining to put the ball in the Volunteers’ hands for a final shot. But Tennessee squandered every opportunity down the stretch, committing three turnovers and shooting 0 for 3 on its last six possessions.
However ungainly, the victory lifted 20th-ranked Georgetown to 5-1 heading into Tuesday’s meeting with Texas at New York’s Madison Square Garden. It also revealed how far the Hoyas have to go before Big East play begins Jan. 5, particularly in terms of building depth in the front court.
Junior forward Nate Lubick left the game with an apparent elbow injury just eight minutes into the game. Mikael Hopkins was among three Hoyas to finish with eight points. (No player on either team managed double figures in scoring or rebounding.) But when Hopkins needed a breather, Thompson’s options were few. He sent in Moses Ayegba, but the experiment lasted just three minutes and one turnover.
Porter and Greg Whittington finished with nearly identical lines, each scoring eight points on 4-of-11 shooting and contributing a team-high seven rebounds.
The Volunteers won the rebounding battle, 37-29, but arguably gave the game away with a 3-of-11 performance at the free throw line. The Hoyas, meanwhile, made just 4 of 9 foul shots.
Tennessee (4-2) played tough defense start to finish but took rash shots against Georgetown’s zone.
Georgetown wasn’t bothered by Tennessee’s pace or physicality, but ran its plays methodically to build a 12-4 lead.
With less than five minutes remaining in the period, the score was just 12-9, with Georgetown shooting 29 percent and Tennessee 19 percent.
Trae Golden (eight points) hit a shot at the buzzer to give the Volunteers an 18-16 lead at halftime, but both teams shot under 28 percent in the period.
The second half opened briskly, by comparison, with Hopkins hitting a shot just 17 seconds in.
Tennessee forced the pace, but Georgetown handled it better.
The final score was identical to Georgetown’s second-round victory over Southern Methodist in the 1984 NCAA tournament, which the Hoyas went on to win.
But at this stage, the 2012-13 Hoyas are a far cry from Final Four material.
Thompson conceded as much but expressed confidence that his young team, which played most of Friday’s game with just one junior (Starks) on the floor, can get far better.
“You walk away from a game where you scored 37 points and you win, part of you says, ‘I’ll take that.’ ” Thompson said. “We know we have a long way to go. We know we are a work in progress, we know we are a young team . . . we always can improve. But today was just one of those days where the ball just didn’t go in the basket.”