Get inside March Madness with SI.com's Luke Winn in the Tourney Blog, a daily journal of college basketball commentary, on-site reporting and reader-driven discussions.
3/25/2007 10:20:00 PM
A Hoya Revival at the Meadowlands
Georgetown is back in the Final Four for the first time in 22 years.
Jim McIsaac/Getty Images
John Thompson III (top) hoisted the East Region title trophy, while Patrick Ewing (bottom) played the role of proud father in East Rutherford.
Getty Images, AP
EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- Once the reality had set in, that Georgetown had erased a nine-point deficit to top-seeded North Carolina in the final six minutes of an NCAA tournament epic, sent the game to overtime on a clutch three by Jonathan Wallace, and gone on a 14-0 run there to seal its first Final Four trip since 1985, the scene on the floor at Continental Airlines Arena turned surreal.
First there was Patrick Ewing -- not the sophomore forward who grabbed the clutch rebound on North Carolina's final shot of regulation, a missed 3-pointer by Wayne Ellington, but the famed center who led the Hoyas to a national title in 1984 -- holding court with reporters in front of the Georgetown bench. His eyes glistening, and his elaborate, multi-dog-tag-bling necklace glimmering in the stadium lights, he said, "I feel like I just won!"
Then there was the stream of Georgetown players walking over to the scorer's table to exchange hugs with one of CBS' radio announcers after winning 96-84. The man in the headset happened to be Big John Thompson Jr., who had brought the program to prominence in the 1980s, making three Final Four trips and winning one national championship, in 1984. Here, while the Hoyas shot a jaw-dropping 57.6 percent from the field, and 57.1 percent from three-point land, to keep up with a Tar Heels attack that many said would leave them in the dust, the elder Thompson had provided the nation with blow-by-blow analysis.
Then there was Big John's son, John Thompson III -- or Little John, as Tar Heels coach Roy Williams called him Saturday -- morphing out of his reserved persona into that of a showman, grabbing the microphone on the podium at midcourt and repeatedly yelling "WE ARE," with his rooting section responding en masse, "GEORGETOWN!"
And last, there was the Easter Bunny -- or at least a Georgetown football player named Andrew Rehwinkel profusely sweating through an Easter Bunny costume -- in the first row of the stands. He had run down there from the upper deck to congratulate players like Jeff Green, the junior who had 22 points and was named the East Region's Most Outstanding Player, and freshman DaJuan Summers, who came up huge with 20 points and six rebounds, as they left the floor. "Easter came early, baby!" yelled Rehwinkel, who bought the costume that day at a local Target. He called it "the best $50 I've spent in my life."
About 15 minutes earlier, after UNC's Ellington misfired a 3-pointer with 1:24 left in overtime -- the Tar Heels' seventh straight miss to open the extra period -- the game finally looked in hand for Georgetown, whose fans couldn't control their emotions in the stands. I glanced toward the nosebleed sections behind the Hoyas' bench, where GU's massive student section had been unfairly relegated for both contests in East Rutherford, and saw Rehwinkel holding both of his hands up to his head in disbelief. A victory had once seemed doubtful, with UNC killing Georgetown on the offensive glass in the first half (by a 10-4 margin), Thompson getting T'ed up for arguing a call, and the Heels playing at their pace to take a 50-44 lead into the break. Now, with the win in hand, even the Easter Bunny was in a state of shock.
The most level head I could find amid the chaos was that of Wallace, the 6-foot-1 junior guard with a very un-Georgetown like background. He was raised on an 80-acre cattle farm in rural Alabama, and was the student government president at Sparkman High School in Huntsville, before coming to Washington DC to lead the Hoyas back to prominence. Green, in his postgame interviews, recalled a trip he and Tyler Crawford took two summers ago to the Wallace farm, where "one big, tan-and-white cow that had a loose, dangling horn and just stared at me and Tyler."
The odd man on the Hoyas' mostly urban roster, though, had hit the biggest shot of the day, losing Lawson beneath a screen and drilling a three from the left wing to tie the game at 81-81 with 31.2 seconds left. Before telling his cow tale, Green had affectionately called Wallace, who averaged 11.0 points on the season but had 19 on 7-of-11 shooting on Sunday, "the best player on the team, to me."
And so it was Wallace who, when describing that shot, did not yell or spin a yarn about envisioning it in a dream. He simply said that it came, like most of the Hoyas' other clutch shots down the stretch, within the flow of their offense. "That's a practice shot," he said. "I shoot that shot every day."
Indeed, the story of the second-half comeback that sent Georgetown to the Final Four is not one of individual heroics, but merely that of a team trusting in the offense -- Thompson's modified Princeton attack -- that got them to East Rutherford. Down eight, at 73-65, with 7:51 left in the game, Thompson entered the huddle smiling during a media timeout and said (according to Green), "We're fine -- just keep running the offense, getting rebounds, and making stops."
"It was not a big plan to come in chuckling," said Thompson, "but I felt good about where we were."
Thompson's move was eerily similar to one found in a story Williams had told Saturday about the meeting between Georgetown and North Carolina in the hallowed 1982 national title game. During a timeout with 32 seconds left and UNC down by one, Dean Smith addressed the team one last time before Michael Jordan's storybook shot. According to Williams:
"There was not one time during the Final Four that I had he ever thought about that we could possibly lose. When those guys came over to the bench, the look on their face just shocked me because I saw a negative look. We kneeled down in front of the bench like coaches do, and Coach Smith said, "we're in great shape." He said, "I'd much rather be in our shoes than theirs. We are exactly where we want to be."
The rest -- MJ's jumper and James Worthy's steal -- was history. So, little did we know, while it looked like Georgetown was on the ropes, JTIII was channeling Smith and the Hoyas believed themselves to be in better shape than anyone else imagined. Three straight field goals in the paint by Sapp, Green and Hibbert -- the last a resounding dunk on a baseline spin -- cut UNC's lead to three at the 4:22 mark. The two teams battled back and forth for the next four minutes until it was time for Wallace to have his Jordan moment.
Williams called a timeout seven seconds later, removed his glasses, put them in the breast pocket of his suit, and entered the huddle to call a play for the final shot. Ellington's 3 -- which was, somewhat to the coach's dismay, not the first option -- was off, bringing about overtime. The final five minutes were a one-sided affair, beginning with a quintessential backcut-for-layup by Wallace, and ending with the Tar Heels' title hopes buried under a 12-point deficit.
In the tunnel afterward, Wallace made his way toward the Arena's exit without as much as a whoop or a holler, carrying his duffel bag and happily wearing his Final Four hat. Big John, who was waiting for his son to emerge, stopped Wallace and asked him, why, in the postgame press conference, he hadn't told the reporters, "I've been hitting big shots like that all year!"
Wallace shrugged his shoulders, and offered a hushed reply that seemed to appease the iconic former coach. Such boasting would have been uncharacteristic for the steady pilot of the Hoyas' unstoppable offense. And besides, he had more pressing things to do than bragging -- like catching the team bus outside, returning to DC, and preparing for the madness that awaits in Atlanta.