Faltering Out of the Gate
After a blowout win in the season opener, the Hoyas squandered a late lead against Maryland and came out flat in a blowout loss to Arkansas State.
McDonough Gymnasium was spiteful. It was the third game of the season, and Georgetown was down 48-29 at halftime to Arkansas State of the Sun Belt conference. At the time, the Red Wolves (9-2) were 1-1, having lost 10 straight games to Division I opponents dating back to last season.
The Hoyas broke that streak.
Packs of fans filed out of the rare on-campus game at halftime, leaving to avoid further embarrassment — an embarrassment that felt all too familiar.
Two days before, those same fans saw the Blue and Gray crumble in the last 70 seconds of the game, surrendering a seven-point lead to Maryland (11-1) in the game’s waning moments.
Junior guard and Maryland star Melo Trimble hit two free throws with seven seconds left to give the Terrapins a 76-75 lead, crushing the Verizon Center faithful.
The scattered spots of Maryland red in an arena full of blue and gray quickly turned into a solid, Terrapin red sea as Stonewalls and students alike scurried out of the stands.
According to KenPom.com’s win probability algorithm, against Maryland, the Hoyas were not only in control the entire game but also had a nearly 100 percent likelihood of winning with just seconds left.
Two nights later back at McDonough, Georgetown mounted a late comeback against Arkansas State, but it was too late. 78-72 Red Wolves.
Pundits and fans discredited Arkansas State’s talent and pointed to Georgetown’s hangover following the crushing loss to Maryland.
“It’s going to be rough. We have to do two things in the next 48 hours. We have to dissect and digest this game and we also have to prepare for the next game,” Head Coach John Thompson III said in the postgame interview following the Maryland game. “We have to learn from it.”
The team did not heed Thompson’s words in time for the Red Wolves. The learning curve was unforgiving.
The Maui Jim Invitational seemed out of place. Thompson often spoke of a schedule that he felt was arduous, let alone for a team that eventually started three newcomers: freshman guard Jagan Mosley, junior forward Akoy Agau and graduate student guard Rodney Pryor.
“It’s a learning experience for them,” Thompson said in the postgame interview following the team’s 97-70 loss to Oklahoma State, the third and final game in Maui. “I don’t want to be flippant, pass it off as that. But, as I said, if we can take today’s game, if we can take yesterday’s game, and if we can learn from it and not make the same mistakes as the year goes on, then this was beneficial for us.”
In Georgetown’s first game in Maui on Nov. 21, junior guard Dillon Brooks of Oregon (10-2) made his first appearance of the season, adding eight points to what was a furious rally evocative of the Maryland game.
This time, the Hoyas protected their lead, and Pryor’s 26 points, 10 rebounds and four blocks were enough to help the team escape with a 65-61 victory.
“Those other things that he brings to the table above and beyond his scoring is what we need from him,” Thompson said of Pryor’s all-around performance. “He’s easy to work into a unit because he gives of himself.”
Pryor used the win, along with his performance, to point toward the improving and developing team.
“We know we’re a good team. We know we let two go early. But we can’t hang our heads on that. Can’t get too low, can’t get too high,” Pryor said of the team’s 1-2 start and the mentality going into Maui. “We knew we had to stay together, stick to our game plan, believe in each other make sure to come out with energy, effort and passion. Once we play that type of basketball we know we can be really good.”
The type of basketball Pryor spoke of, however, took many more games to develop.
Following the tense win, the Hoyas regrouped to face Wisconsin (10-2), and welcomed the return of graduate student center and captain Bradley Hayes, who sat out the team’s first four games due to eligibility rules.
Despite Hayes’ return, the game went down in history, and the Blue and Gray were on the wrong side of it.
In 40 minutes, Georgetown recorded just one offensive rebound — its worst showing on the offensive glass in 20-plus years. 73-57 Badgers.
The next game saw yet another historic mark against Georgetown; against Oklahoma State (9-2), the team turned the ball over 28 times en route to a 27-point defeat, 97-70, at the hands of the Cowboys. The 28 turnovers were the most in Thompson’s 12-year tenure as head coach.
“We had to handle it better and we didn’t,” Thompson said of the team’s inability to handle Oklahoma State’s pressure defense. “We had some guys out there that were in that situation for the first time, either a freshman or it was their first time with us.”
The team left Maui with a 2-4 record and returned home looking toward four straight games against mid-major teams.
Georgetown took care of business in two straight games, downing Howard (3-8) 85-72 and drubbing Coppin State (1-12) by 52 points, 96-44. The next opponent proved a far more daunting task: the Elon Phoenix.
While the game ended in a 77-74 victory, the Hoyas struggled for much of the game, allowing the Phoenix (7-5) to shoot 39 percent from three as a team. The Blue and Gray’s lackluster performance drew the attention of college basketball critics.
Thompson, on the other hand, felt like his young team was finally improving.
“We made progress. I just told the guys this, but this week is an important week where we have five or six days until our next game for us to get better,” Thompson said of the team’s more subdued game schedule that allowed for more practice time, as opposed to playing three games in three days during the Maui Invitational . “This week we have a good week of Georgetown getting better and healthy.”
And indeed Georgetown did get better, handing HoopHall Invitational opponent La Salle (5-4) a 93-78 loss behind Peak’s 24 points, four rebounds and three assists. Pryor chipped in 19 points and three three-pointers as the duo, who accounts for a combined average of 37.3 points per game, continued to emerge as the team’s leaders.
Despite this four-game winning streak, Georgetown had yet to play a true road game; the Maui Invitational and HoopHall Invitational both took place at neutral sites.
Exactly seven days later, that changed. Syracuse awaited Georgetown’s arrival.
Much fanfare has always surrounded Syracuse and Georgetown. The images of elbows thrown and punches exchanged have permeated pregame videos and commercials for decades. But the rivalry is not what it used to be.
After the 2012-13 season, the Orange (6-4) left the Big East for the Atlantic Coast Conference, and, with their departure, the rivalry was no longer a twice-a-year treat.
“Three years ago, people were billing it as the last time and everyone knew that wasn’t true. You know it’s Georgetown-Syracuse, we’re going to play,” Thompson said of the programs’ commitment to continue the rivalry despite being in a different conference.
After a two-year absence, the programs agreed to a four-yearlong home-and-home series. Last season, the Blue and Gray downed the Orange in front of a roaring Verizon Center, with Hayes’ career game leading Georgetown to a 79-72 victory — a score line that glosses over the Hoyas 20-point lead for much of the second half.
This season, KenPom.com gave Georgetown a 23 percent chance to win. Syracuse — standing at 6-3 — had beaten the teams it needed to and looked poised to hand Georgetown its fifth loss of the season.
Despite returning key contributors from last season, there were two notable differences for Syracuse, however. Head Coach Jim Boeheim was back on the sidelines — a suspension for NCAA violations kept him out of the bout last season — and the Orange had home court advantage.
Georgetown, on the other hand, entered the game searching for a rallying cry. Prior to the game, junior forward Isaac Copeland announced his decision to transfer out of the program at the end of the semester, surprising everyone with an ear to Hoya basketball.
“It was shocking. But Isaac is going to make whatever is best for him and his family and we are going to support that,” Pryor said of Copeland’s decision to transfer. “We are confident with the group of guys we got in the locker room and it’s sad that he can’t be a part of what we’ve got going, but there’s no hard feelings.”
Pryor and the Hoyas seemed to enter Saturday tentative yet prepared. The first half fell victim to stagnation: When Georgetown did seem poised to strike, Syracuse had an answer. The game entered halftime at a draw, 33-33.
The player of the game for Syracuse was sophomore forward Tyler Lydon. The 6-foot-9 forward challenged Georgetown defenders throughout the game, en route to a career-high and game-high 29 points. The sophomore finished the game on 12-of-13 shooting from the field.
Despite this individual performance, the other Syracuse lacked energy throughout the game. The rest of the team shot 14-of-43 combined.
As the second half drew on, the Hoyas seemed to always have an answer, whether it was a Pryor floater or Peak free throws.
The atmosphere in the Dome was tenuous at best. Orange fans had little to hang their hats on, and Hoya fans had yet to forget the Maryland game. With 11:21 left, Georgetown held a 48-46 lead.
Moments later, Pryor drove to the basket and took a hit to the head. The whistle blew, the shot sank and the star guard slid to the floor with a stern look on his face as teammates rushed to help him up, the rest of the team enthused.
Pryor hit the free throw, and the Hoyas’ lead was five. Georgetown had the momentum.
The final minutes of the game gave Syracuse a stretch of comeback opportunities. A late game press forced key turnovers, and until a Mulmore three-pointer with 2:35 left —just his third of the season — the game hung in the balance.
The Hoyas hit their free throws and Pryor drew a charge with 48 seconds left, falling to the ground once more, and sealing a Georgetown victory.
The sold-out crowd at the Carrier Dome, which had raucously welcomed Georgetown 40 minutes earlier, stood now in a sound vacuum.
“You can’t simulate that,” Thompson said of the Dome’s rowdy environment. “Coming down the stretch, we did some good things, we did some things that we have to do better. We made our foul shots, which was key. It wasn’t as pretty as we wanted it to be, but guys made enough plays.”
Despite Peak’s 23 points and Pryor’s 20 — more than half of the Hoyas’ score on Saturday — the team as a whole finally came together.
“It was a team win,” Thompson said. “You can look at everybody who got in, everybody did their job. They got in and contributed.”
What now lies ahead for the Hoyas is a four-game stretch that includes No. 17 Xavier (9-2) on Dec. 31 and No. 13 Butler (10-1) on Jan. 7, tests that may very well define the rest of the season.
Regardless, the Hoyas approach the end of 2016 with a win against Syracuse in tow — a victory that seemed nothing but a far cry on the night of the Arkansas State loss.
Georgetown turned the Syracuse game into an inflection point and turned upwards.
The storied rivalry, which once felt lost in the requiem for the old Big East, found a new place on the Hoyas’ schedule: two Ws.