Georgetown prepared to tip off at noon today with an uncertain season to date. Embarrassing early-season losses were followed by a less-than-dominating four-game winning streak over mid-major and lesser fare. Roster depth looked more like mediocrity, and one of the team’s presumptive stars had decided to transfer.
None of that mattered for the next two hours, or afterward, the Hoyas dispatched their old, hated rival Syracuse on its ugly home court on the day the Orange had set aside to honor their program’s iconic star. (RIP, Pearl.)
LJ Peak was terrific, as he has been for much of the past two seasons, tallying 21 points, grabbing 10 rebounds, and handing out 4 assists to spearhead an efficient Georgetown attack. Rodney Pryor also poured in 20 points, and the Hoyas got just enough from everyone else to squeeze the Orange for a tough, important road win.
Often when Georgetown plays at Syracuse, things start poorly for the Hoyas, and Saturday was no different. Hoya shots weren’t falling, Georgetown wasn’t boxing out, the Orange zone forced some rushed turnovers. Within the first few minutes, the Hoyas had fallen behind 11-4. The outlook was gloomier than the vacuum cleaner bag that the Orange call the Carrier Dome set against a gray, wintry Upstate New York sky.
But much like the Hoyas’ last trip to Syracuse, when Otto and the Miracles upset the Orange on their home court, Georgetown settled down, first on defense, and then on offense. The Hoyas largely ditched a press that wasn’t getting them much, and shied away from a zone that was confusing Georgetown more than Syracuse, instead committing to man coverage that largely kept the Orange in check for much of the first half. When the Hoyas had the ball, they probed the Orange defense, finding seams off the cut, the dribble, and the pass while shooting over the top. Georgetown briefly pulled ahead before heading into intermission tied, seemingly fortunate after having trailed for much of the game to date.
The question for Georgetown at the break, as it has been for much of the season to date, is how to score points its two wing scorers. Georgetown’s offense this year has been like trying to buy a coffee knowing that you have two dollars and some loose pocket change. Peak and Pryor accounted for 19 of Georgetown’s 33 first-half points, getting into the soft underbelly of the Syracuse zone seemingly at will. That output was likely to continue after the break. But, absent a star performance like Otto’s 33-pointer during that 2013 trip, the Hoyas would need more points from the rest of the roster to get the job done.
The unlikeliest source seemed to be Jessie Govan, who looked slow and awkward as he fumbled through the early game. But the sophomore center found his groove as the afternoon wore on, establishing position in the post for a hook, finding a gap in the Orange zone for a lay-in, crashing the boards for a crucial put-back, and helping to ice the game from the free-throw line. Just as importantly, Govan and Peak led a team effort to wall off the defensive glass, where Georgetown yielded 9 first-half offensive rebounds but just 3 after the break. By game’s end, Govan had turned a halting, error-filled performance into a solid, critical double-double (12 points, 10 rebounds).
Govan’s turn-around, plus odds and ends—a Reggie Cameron elbow jumper! a Jon Mulmore three!—were the result of a broader offensive turnaround for the Hoyas. After scuffling through much of the first half just to move the ball beyond the perimeter of the Syracuse zone, Georgetown got inside during the second half, finding open teammates in the post, at the nail, and on the weak side. Eventually 25 Georgetown baskets were set up by 16 assists, evidence of the Hoyas’ solid ball movement and unselfishness. All of that should have been more than enough to supplement the base of Peak and Pryor, who finished with a combined line of 43 points, 5 made 3s, and 14 of 16 from the line.
But the Hoyas faced two problems. One, the statistical bugaboo of Georgetown’s offense for much of the season, was turnovers. The Hoyas gave the ball away 19 times on the day, a figure that could be expected given their struggles to control the ball and Syracuse’s focus on turning it over. Seven of these giveaways came down the stretch when, Syracuse rolled out a press that quickly whittled a five-point Hoya lead down to just one.
The second problem for Georgetown was the Orange’s Tyler Lydon, who went to work on the Hoya defense in the second half. A stretchy, big forward with a readily hatable face, Lydon found openings and mismatches inside and out, shooting over smaller defenders beyond the arc, driving on bigger ones, and bodying up little guys in the post. Lydon finished the day with 29 points on an astonishing 12 of 13 shooting, single-handedly keeping Syracuse in the game down the stretch.
But despite the turnovers and Lydon’s buckets, Georgetown was able to put the game away down the stretch. After Peak lost the ball with under a minute to play, Syracuse regained possession down 3 with plenty of time to get back in it. But Georgetown drew a charge, held onto the ball, and made 10 of 12 free throws down the stretch, keeping the Orange just out of arm’s reach. Lydon, all mean mugs and arm-waves while he hit shot after shot, ended the day looking like this.
In a young season that has included more disappointments than triumphs, this is a conquest worth savoring. Not too long, of course, as a frisky UNC Greensboro (1 ahead of Elon in KenPom!) visits the Phone Booth on Thursday.
But there was so much to like on Saturday. Peak and Pryor look more like the reliable foundation of a functional offense. On a big stage against a tricky defense, Georgetown wrung enough out of everyone else to score a very respectable 78 points. The Hoyas also shored up their biggest weakness, defensive rebounding, against a team primed to exploit it. With a tough conference schedule looming just over the horizon, Georgetown secured its second win over a major-conference opponent. And it wasn’t just any foe, but the enemy, Syracuse. Hoya Saxa.