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Georgetown Passes St. John's on Brutal Big East Escalator

Jan 26, 2011 – 11:35 PM
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David Steele

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WASHINGTON -- There's never a time when the Big East's mantra (this league will eat you alive) does not apply. It fit the bill again Wednesday night, particularly in Providence, where the lowly Friars (1-6 in conference play as the day began) took down eighth-ranked Villanova (previously 17-2 overall and one of just two Big East teams with one loss).

It also fit for the two combatants at the blizzard-buffeted Verizon Center, Georgetown and St. John's, who both had four league losses entering the night. Thanks to a 77-52 domination, No. 21 Georgetown moved from 1/2 game behind St. John's to 1/2 game in front, although they both still have a distant view of the top of the standings, looking up at no fewer than seven teams.

But Georgetown, 15-5 overall, feels a lot better about its 4-4 conference mark than 11-8 St. John's feels about its 4-5 record. That's because the last time they met, three weeks ago in Madison Square Garden, St. John's won to improve to a surprising 3-0, and knocked Georgetown down to 1-2, on its way to 1-4. Revenge was sweet, as St. John's coach Steve Lavin suspected and the Hoyas players confirmed. But chipping away further at the bad start was sweeter.

"Winning three in a row is much better than losing three in a row -- but the same thing still applies,'' coach John Thompson III said. "There's still a lot of ball to be played. Every team can beat every team.

"We had a focus tonight; we had a doggedness about us tonight. We just have to maintain it for every game,'' he continued. "I've said this, I believe this, I live this, 4-4 vs. 1-4 vs. whatever, you have to get ready for the next game. This league is too tough, too daunting, too challenging, and if you get caught up in the big picture too much -- 'We gotta do this over the next four game-span' -- no, you've got to come to play and beat the team in front of you next. And if you do that enough times, at the end of the day you'll be fine.''

It appears to have worked for Georgetown after it got off to its worst Big East start in Thompson's six years as coach. Since bottoming out at home against Pittsburgh two weeks ago, the Hoyas began to climb out of their hole with two wins in New Jersey, and when the stakes were raised against the team that beat them 61-58 on Jan. 3 -- a team that had threatened the national polls at one point -- the Hoyas finally resembled the team that had come out of non-conference play at 11-1.

St. John's, however, looked nothing like the team that had opened eyes all over the country, eyes that had been trained on new coach Steve Lavin as he led the chronically disappointing Red Storm to early league wins over the Hoyas and West Virginia. Since the win over Georgetown, St. John's has lost five of six, three of the losses by more than 20.

On Wednesday, the senior-laden Red Storm let Georgetown open up a 13-point halftime lead on them by going scoreless over the last five minutes of the half, then closed the gap to five early in the second half -- then, in the final 15 minutes, got plowed under like a double-parked car on 6th Street outside of the arena.

To Lavin, the reasons weren't complicated. Georgetown, he said, "really played with a sustained, hard edge. There was a alert, aggressive mindset throughout ... Old-school basketball -- they put on a clinic offensively. And they played with a hard-nosed, aggressive, maybe payback mentality, and I'll be talking to the kids about that.''

"I think we know we didn't play well at St. John's. Offensively and defensively, we were just off,'' Georgetown guard Chris Wright admitted. "We really wanted to come out here and, and beat them. Beat them on the boards, beat them on defense. It was definitely a payback game.

"But,'' he added, "it was also another league game.'' One of the ones he cares about, Wright also said as he pointed out how little he paid attention to the standings. "I want everybody to lose,'' he said with a grin. "But as long as we take care of what we have to, we'll be all right.''

For St. John's, however, the game showed that it has little, if any, margin for error. Lavin went nine deep, not unusual for him, but much of the time he went without defensive spark plug Paris Horne. The senior guard left with his second foul with only 1:21 gone in the game. St. John's had no rhythm on either end without him in the game, and he stayed in foul trouble and ineffective the rest of the night before fouling out with 2:38 left and both teams clearing their benches.

"More than anybody else,'' Lavin said of Horne, "he's our defensive stopper, he's our heart and soul, he's our energy.''

Between Georgetown being as active as it has been defensively in weeks and St. John's getting little from Horne and fellow seniors Dwight Hardy (10 points, 4-for-16 shooting) and D.J. Kennedy (only six shot attempts, seven points), St. John's threatened only sporadically all night. The Red Storm shot 33.9 percent, including 4-for-15 on 3-pointers, while the Hoyas hit 51 percent from the floor with nine threes. After staying close on the boards for the first 10 minutes, they ended up getting outrebounded 39-30, and it seemed worse as the game went on and they were consistently held to one shot.

The three Georgetown star guards found the groove that had been taken from them at the Garden earlier in the month. Austin Freeman had a four-point play on the way to 14 points, Jason Clark scored a game-high 16 points, and Wright filled up the box score with nine points, six assists, three rebounds and two steals. Even with them returning to form, though, the X-factor was sophomore forward Hollis Thompson, coming off the bench after starting every previous game this season and totaling 15 points and six rebounds in 18 minutes.

"It was mostly Georgetown playing really well, and us not playing well.''
-- Steve Lavin
Essentially, Georgetown got a boost from a key reserve (albeit a former starter) and contributions from everybody; the whole roster's play, John Thompson said, was "as good as it's been in a while ... I think everybody did their job, they did what they were supposed to do.'' St. John's, meanwhile, was thrown off track largely because one starter, Horne, couldn't stay on the floor and another critical one, Hardy, never heated up.

Again breaking it down to its simplest elements, Lavin said, "It was mostly Georgetown playing really well, and us not playing well.''

That has been the case the last three weeks for both teams. Georgetown might not have believed it desperately needed to, but it needed to start moving up the standings in a hurry. It has, and now, with exactly half of its Big East games remaining, St. John's has to reverse itself and make a second move upward.

The season that the Georgetown coaches and players have described as a long one for the last several weeks, is getting short for Lavin and the Red Storm.
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