Georgetown escaped from Louisville Wednesday night with a win over a top-5 squad. It was another victory for a team that’s learning, and winning, on the job. Make no mistake: this win wasn’t easy. The Hoyas were frequently sloppy on offense, yielding to the Louisville pressure to commit 16 turnovers, and had a number of defensive lapses, letting Cardinal sniper Kyle Kuric shake free for five three-pointers. But Georgetown did just enough to get by, getting defensive stops in the waning minutes, corraling just enough rebounds, and riding career nights by Markel Starks, Otto Porter, and Jabril Trawick to a thrilling, narrow victory.
As exciting as the win was, it looked highly doubtful in the opening minutes. The Hoyas were a jittery mess out of the gate, leaving Kuric wide open for a pair of threes while committing numerous offensive miscues, turning the ball over on one possession then taking a rushed outside shot on the next. The Cardinals’ lead twice reached nine points, as a rowdy KFC Yum! Center (no, really) crowd celebrated.
But then a young season full of the unexpected turns produced yet another surprise: relief arrived in the form of youth. For all the deserved fawning over the Hoyas’ ten underclassmen, they’ve leaned primarily on their three old hands, Henry Sims, Jason Clark, and Hollis Thompson. Particularly in a hostile arena against a frantic, talented squad, the veterans seemed most likely to pull Georgetown out of its rut. But Wednesday night, that trio, while helping out in other ways, barely could score, making just 8 of 26 from the field.
Instead, with the odds seemingly long, the deficit mounting, and the resistance stiffening, JTIII stanched the bleeding with an all frosh-and-soph line-up. Trawick made a pair of free throws, followed by a nifty lefty hook by the much-maligned Nate Lubick. Two Otto Porter jumpers, one (possibly intentionally?) banked, sandwiched a Trawick three, which he sank en route to a career-high nine points. The Hoyas’ spurt pulled them within three, a deficit that was narrowed to 22-21 on a Thompson put-back dunk with 7:36 remaining in the half.
From then until the midway point of the second half, the game remained nip-and-tuck, as Georgetown could not pull ahead by more than a bucket and Louisville’s lead never again exceeded five. Before half, the action was choppy, with both teams forcing their way to the hoop and the free-throw line. After intermission, the Starks show began. The sophomore guard has transformed this year from offensively inert back-up to lethal marksman; the Louisville game was almost a microcosm of his short career thus far, as he looked tentative and error-prone in the first half, eagle-eyed in the second. He followed a deep two to open the Hoyas’ second-half scoring with a total of four three-pointers, the last of which pushed the Hoya lead to ten with six minutes remaining. Finally, a beautiful Sims feed led to a wide-open Starks lay-up, pushing the lead to eleven with barely four minutes remaining, and capping a career-high twenty-point effort for the sophomore, his third straight double-figure game.
Then, just as a late, sizable lead at Alabama was erased, the Hoyas froze, and the Cardinals awakened, rattling off eleven straight to tie the game at 63 with two minutes remaining. The sudden comeback was fueled at least in part by a more physical brand of Louisville defense, as the Cardinals smartly recognized that they were several fouls removed from the bonus, and ratcheted up the defense accordingly. Hoya turnovers and missed shots ensued, and the Cardinals converted on offense.
As worrying as the comeback was, and as rowdy as the Louisville crowd got, turnabout came nearly as quickly. Just as Thompson’s miracle three staved off the Tide, Porter followed the heroics of his fellow underclassmen Trawick and Starks by closing out the win. He put back a Sims miss, one of his fourteen rebounds on the evening, to put Georgetown back ahead. He grabbed consecutive defensive rebounds amd sunk two free-throws which, combined with two tosses by Sims, pushed the lead to six. Even some spotty free-throw shooting down the stretch couldn’t blow another lead, and the Hoyas prevailed in front of a stunned Louisville crowd.
Louisville always forces its opponents to win ugly, and Wednesday was no exception. But a ground-out win by practitioners of the Princeton offense was nothing new in a season in which the Hoyas have won fast (Memphis), slow (Alabama), pretty (NJIT), and ugly (Howard, now Louisville). A deluge of statistics has drawn the thread between this year and those gone by: the second Memphis win guaranteed the Hoyas’ fifth straight 10-1 start, while Georgetown has found itself ranked in the top 15 every year in the JTIII era, save the first. But each game also seems to bring with it a sign that this season stands on its own, unburdened by the successes or shortcomings of seasons past. Players we’ve never seen before surprise by their unflinching confidence and cool composure. JTIII impresses just as much by his willingness to play the youngsters, a topic of some discussion in seasons gone by. And as these Hoyas nab win after win on ever bigger stages, they continue to surprise even the most jaded of fans.
A harried season of Big East play often manifests itself in a confusing mess in the standings, with three- and even four-way ties muddying the conference heirarchy. Those standings matter, as they affect seeding in the confernce tournament and, perhaps, the big dance. This ever-cluttered conference picture heightens the importance of Wednesday’s win over Louisville, a confernce contender like Georgetown aspires to be. But recent seasons have taught us that exciting road wins over top-flight opponents are no guarantor of future success, as any witness to the 2009 win at Connecticut and 2011 victory at Syracuse can attest. Learning from seasons past, the Hoyas will have to prove themselves anew with the next game, which comes all too soon. Big East play affords little rest for the weary, let alone the young and only newly battle-tested. Georgetown returns to action Saturday afternoon in the Hoyas’ Big East home opener, against Providence. Until then, savor the best win of the season so far. Hoya Saxa.