SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico — What began as a calamitous four-day character test for Georgetown ended in triumph Sunday as the Hoyas toppled their first ranked team of the season, overcoming 26 turnovers to defeat No. 10 Virginia Commonwealth, 84-80, and conclude the Puerto Rico Tip-off with a measure of redemption.
In weathering the defensive onslaught by the attack-minded Rams, the Hoyas proved they’re a far grittier bunch than their opening-round loss to Northeastern suggested. They also exacted a measure of revenge on behalf of the 2010-11 Hoyas squad, which was trounced by VCU in the first round of that season’s NCAA tournament.
As triumphs go, however, Sunday’s fifth-place game at Coliseo Roberto Clemente was a tedious affair, approaching three hours because of a foul-strewn second half, with players taking turns trudging to the free throw line. Set to a soundtrack of officials’ whistles, the game featured 61 personal fouls and 84 free throws.
It was on the free throw line that Georgetown finally put the game out of reach.
For the third consecutive game, the Hoyas were led by sophomore guard D’Vauntes Smith-Rivera, who scored a game-high 26 points. His backcourt mate, senior co-captain Markel Starks (23 points), was unshakable in the waning minutes as VCU scrambled to make up the deficit, finishing 10 for 10 from the free throw line.
“Six a.m.,” Starks said when asked about his mind-set stepping to the free throw line. That’s the time he and Smith-Rivera wake up to practice free throw shooting in the gym, he explained, as they are determined to hone their skill and mental resolve. And that’s what they said to each other Sunday — “Six a.m.” — each time either took a free throw.
VCU had another poor shooting performance (36 percent), but it did so much on the defensive end — tallying 15 steals and milking 26 points off 26 Georgetown turnovers — that the game was tight until the buzzer sounded. Three times in the final 24 seconds, the Rams cut the Hoyas’ lead to three points. Starks replied with a pair of free throws at the 19-second and 7-second marks.
Georgetown Coach John Thompson III called it “a terrific win against a very good team.”
“We focused in and settled down and made the plays when they needed to be made,” Thompson said.
With the victory, the Hoyas improve to 3-2 and head back to Washington with a firmer handle on their identity, which was mystifying following their 63-56 loss to Northeastern, picked to finish in the middle of the Colonial Athletic Association, in the tournament’s opener. But the Hoyas drew high praise from VCU Coach Shaka Smart, whose Rams fell to 4-2 after losing two of their three games in the tournament.
“They’re really hard to guard,” Smart said of Georgetown, which shot 56 percent from the field. “They have three really good players that can really hurt you one-on-one.”
Joining Smith-Rivera and Starks in double figures was 6-foot-10 center Joshua Smith, who contributed 17 points (9 for 10 from the free throw line) and four rebounds.
But as pleased as Thompson was with the outcome, he raised the question again of whether college basketball’s new rules on hand-checking, envisioned as a way to increase scoring and make the game more entertaining, were having the desired effect.
“I think in the thought process was, ‘Okay, we’ll call these touch fouls and have more flow and a higher scoring game,’ ” Thompson said. But it defeats the purpose, Thompson suggested, if the higher scores are the result of more free throws that slow down the games and make them “ugly” in the process.
Smart voiced a similar view.
“Between Georgetown and VCU, there were some very good players on the court this afternoon,” Smart said. “I think as much as possible, when you let those players play, that’s what creates basketball that’s fun to watch. In the second half, it was the opposite of that.”
VCU got to the free throw line for 47 shots, earning 34 of its 80 points from the stripe. Point guard Briante Weber paced the Rams with 22 points, while Treveon Graham added 17 (of which 12 were free throws).
“It’s a choppy game when there are so many fouls called,” Smart said.