The old Big East this wasn’t. Patrick Ewing’s return to Madison Square Garden as the Georgetown’s head coach was symbolically touching but visually painful, as the Hoyas excited New York the winner of an ugly 69-66 win over St. John’s.
The stage was set Tuesday night for a showdown between traditional Big East powers. Ewing and his college rival, the Red Storm’s Chris Mullin, loomed over the sidelines, college and NBA legends now coaching their alma maters, with Bill Raftery on the call, all in the Mecca of basketball.
Alas, the game didn’t quite live up to its nostalgic billing. Instead, it more closely reflected present reality, with two programs slogging through yet another season near the bottom of the conference standings. Even so, there were some genuinely exciting moments down the stretch as Georgetown pulled out a hard-fought, if ugly, road win.
From the jump, both teams struggled to score, proceeding to shoot a combined 35 percent from the field and just 11 of 40 from three. To make matters worse, Georgetown turned the ball over an eye-gouging 22 times. The giveaways came early and often, as the Hoyas loosely dribbled the ball into traffic, made sloppy passes out of double-teams, and sometimes just shuffled their feet. The gifted extra possessions resulted in 17 points off turnovers, reviving an otherwise stagnant St. John’s offense.
While some of these miscues can be chalked up to aggressive defense by the Red Storm, many more can be attributed to the sloppiness that has plagued Georgetown throughout the season. Seven different Hoyas turned the ball over at least twice, with Jagan Mosely (6) and Marcus Derrickson (5) the primary offenders.
The Red Storm weren’t any better. The hosts hoisted up bricks on offense and hacked away on defense. In a rush to jump passing lanes and block shots, St. John’s ceded the glass, allowing Georgetown 19 offensive rebounds and 12 second-chance points while gathering just 24 defensive rebounds of its own.
The nadir came during the second half. After a Jahvon Blair three-pointer put Georgetown ahead by four points at the first TV, neither team scored for the following four and a half minutes. The Hoyas and Red Storm combined to miss 10 consecutive shots, a healthy serving of bricks topped by a dollop of 6 turnovers in that short stretch. At one point, Raftery’s broadcasting colleague commented that the game of basketball had been set back 30 years.
And yet, as the 40 minutes ticked on, we found our way toward excitement. Having slowly built up an 8-point lead with 4 minutes remaining, Georgetown fumbled it away, as three straight turnovers helped the Red Storm erasing that lead in barely a minute. The Red Storm’s press exploited Georgetown’s weak ball-handling as so many have earlier this season, turning butterfingers and jittery nerves into easy points in the opposite direction.
And yet, the Hoyas weren’t done. With the game tied, Jessie Govan popped open for an elbow jumper, which he made despite a foul that netted him a three-point play. Having had his own pocket picked a few times on the evening, Mosely smartly doubled the Red Storm at half court, forcing a loose ball that yielded him an emphatic open-court slam. St. John’s didn’t go away, continuing to attack the basket and eventually evening the game back up again with under a minute to play.
Again pushed, the Hoyas again turned to their star big man, finding Govan open for a triple from the top of the key that he buried with 29 seconds to play. A pair of Jonathan Mulmore free throws and a defensive stop as time expired iced the win.
As it has throughout the season, Georgetown leaned heavily on its two junior big men, with Govan registering a game-high 19 points and 13 rebounds and Derrickson just a step behind at 17 and 8. Both bigs played well, despite turnover problems for Doc and foul issues for Jessie. They both showed off their inside-out abilities, combining for 8 offensive rebounds and staying active in the thicket of Red Storm arms around the basket, while also stepping out to the perimeter and beyond three to bury open looks from deep. Mosely also balanced his ball-handling troubles with an otherwise effective 13 points and 5 assists. Mulmore struggled to contribute on offense but played effective man-to-man defense on Red Storm star Shamorie Ponds, who shot just 5 of 15 from the field.
The win, which moved the Hoyas to 12-4 overall, 2-3 in conference, showed much of what we’ve come to expect from Georgetown this year. The guards struggle offensively, particularly against more aggressive defensive schemes. Mulmore can still affect the game with defense, Mosely and Jahvon Blair (2-8 for 9 points) hopefully can get buckets here and there. The wings struggle, too, as Kaleb Johnson, a seeming breakout player in non-conference play, has gone quiet in the Big East, while freshman forward Jamorko Pickett is still finding his way around the court.
That leaves Govan and Derrickson to fuel the offense. They’ve consistently stepped up no the road, in a spirited if failed comeback at Marquette, down the stretch in a fiery win at DePaul, and again Tuesday night. Derrickson set the tone early, making space down low to get points against a thin Red Storm front line. And Govan finished things off late with his shotmaking.
To beat anyone other than (fellow?) cellar dwellers, the Hoyas will need something else —turnovers, playmaking, a third scorer—to break its way. But on a Tuesday night full of history, Georgetown’s continued claim as Big Man U was enough.