End of Syracuse-Georgetown leaving hole in hoops landscape
NEW YORK -- Two weary coaches passed each other in a back hallway at Madison Square Garden, one a victorious 68-year-old, the other a defeated 47-year-old. They shared a tender moment, which was possible only because Syracuse and Georgetown's bitter Big East rivalry was over. Its farewell tour had gone three games, closing with an exhausting, overtime grinder in the Big East Tournament semifinals.
"You've been doing this for how long?" John Thompson III asked Jim Boeheim.
This is Boeheim's 34th season in the Big East. Friday night's 58-55 win was his 38th over the Hoyas, every one of them cherished.
"It's too long," Boeheim said. "You'll never make it."
"I know," Thompson III replied. "I'll never make it."
They had sympathy for each other's mental health, but not for the way the Northeast's greatest college basketball rivalry -- and the conference that defined the sport on the East Coast over the past three decades -- had fallen apart. Just six days earlier, after Georgetown went up 2-0 in the season series with a 61-39 rout at the Verizon Center in Washington,Thompson III's famous father, former Hoyas coach John Thompson Jr., had irked Boeheim with some postgame comments. After his first-ever win at Syracuse, in February 1980, Thompson Jr. had famously proclaimed that "Manley Fieldhouse" -- the antiquated gym the Orange were holding a goodbye ceremony for -- "is now closed."
On March 9 in Washington, Thompson Jr. accused the football-playing schools that ruined the Big East of being "pimps." Then he offered a 2013 update of what he'd said 33 years earlier: "We officially closed Syracuse, and now we kiss them goodbye."
Boeheim, who had hugged the elder Thompson prior to that game, finally broached the subject late on Friday night, saying: "I don't like what John said after that game. ... But that's John, he's going to say something, that's the way he is. His son doesn't do that. In fact, I think Johnny told him before that, 'We've gotta play them again.'"
It was not guaranteed that Syracuse and Georgetown would meet in the Big East tournament, but the league standings put them on the same side of the bracket, and fate had them playing in front of a sellout crowd Friday night. The third matchup of the season, plus the overtime, led many to speculate that no one wanted the rivalry to end. But it seemed that one player on the floor -- Orange small forward C.J. Fair -- actually did want it to end, if only to be put out of his misery.
For approximately 43 minutes of action, Fair was struggling. He missed a pull-up jumper in the final minute of regulation, with Syracuse up two, to put his shooting total at 2-of-15, much of that due to the relentless hounding of Hoyas star Otto Porter. Then with 7.3 seconds left, Fair inexplicably fouled Porter while he was dribbling into the left corner -- and Porter made the two free throws that sent the game to overtime. When the buzzer sounded on regulation and Fair approached his bench, an incredulous Boeheim asked him, "What are you doing?"
But with 2:03 left in OT, and the Orange leading 55-53, Fair finally awoke. He drove on Porter from the right elbow and threw down a monstrous slam for the game's signature moment. Then on Georgetown's penultimate possession, with under 10 seconds left and the score 58-55, it was Fair who intercepted Porter's pass attempt out of a trap on the right wing, and was sent to the free throw line with a chance to ice the game. He had a shot at a complete redemption.
The most famous Big East Tournament moment in this rivalry is a punch. During the 1984 championship game at the Garden, which Georgetown won in overtime, Hoyas star Michael Graham punched the Orange's Andre Hawkins; it went uncalled; and Boeheim adamantly believed the technical foul would have changed the outcome. He told reporters, "the best team did not win tonight," and, for good measure, threw a chair in the press room before he walked out.
There was a chance, on Friday, for something to finally trump the punch. Fair missed both of his free throws. Georgetown's Nate Lubick rebounded the second one and passed to teammate Jabril Trawick, who had time to launch a half-courter before the buzzer. It hung in the air, carrying with it the potential for another OT, and for a moment that would turn the game into a true classic. Thompson III gauged its arc and said, "I thought it was going in."
But it banked too high off the backboard, and fell to the floor. The 34-year blood feud ended with a thud. Michael Carter-Williams, Syracuse's sophomore point guard, made a point of turning in the direction of Georgetown's pep band and smirking; they had been taunting him with chants of "LORD AND TAYLOR," in reference to an alleged shoplifting incident from the department store earlier this season. He held the expression long enough to drive them into a frenzy before he walked off the floor.
"It's a great rivalry," Carter-Williams said later. "I hope they don't take it personal."
But what, he was asked, had been his message to the Hoyas' band?
"Just," he said, "that Syracuse is back."
Historically, this game will be remembered as the end of an era, and perhaps the signature moment of the Big East's wake, but in the short term, it should have a different impact. Syracuse, a team that a week ago looked like it was spiraling downward into the NCAA tournament, a far cry from the top-five form it displayed in January, has revived itself with three wins here at the Garden. Georgetown demoralized the Orange twice in the final weeks of the regular season, but here, the Hoyas gave their rivals the gift of March momentum.
Boeheim said Syracuse, which has a history of Garden revivals -- the most famous being Gerry McNamara's five-game miracle stretch in 2006 -- "needed it this year more than ever." "We had confidence," Boeheim said of his team that lost five of its last eight Big East regular-season games, "but we shouldn't have had any confidence the way we were playing."
The Orange surprised everyone at the Garden with a renewed sense of purpose on defense, particularly in the ways they extended their 2-3 zone to attack and trap Porter, wherever he was on the court. Meanwhile, Thompson III may have surprised Boeheim with an uncharacteristic parting shot. Many in the Big East's old guard view Syracuse's departure for the ACC as the cold-blooded breaking point, and while the younger Thompson stopped well short of any pimp references, he did say this about the Orange: "It's a shame that they're heading down to Tobacco Road for a few dollars more."
When Boeheim had been asked a similar question, he blamed the fracturing of the league on gridiron greed. "This is just to do with football," he snipped. "It's just where everything is going. Just wait a few more years. Everything will be gone."
The late, great Big East still had one game left. But Syracuse-Georgetown was gone, and there was no waiting necessary: the void was already palpable.