Midway through the second half of Thursday’s opening Big East tournament quarterfinal game, Georgetown trailed Villanova by 10 points. The margin wasn’t surprising considering the Wildcats were the No. 1 seed and three-time reigning champions, while the Hoyas were the No. 8 seed and had a below-.500 record.
Still, Georgetown wasn’t about to let up and see its season end in disappointing fashion, as had become customary since former All-American center and Naismith Hall of Famer Patrick Ewing was named the coach in April 2017. The Hoyas battled back and took the lead with five minutes left, only to fall behind again by five points with 1:30 remaining. But they turned things around and clinched a 72-71 victory when freshman guard Dante Harris made two free throws with five seconds remaining.
The comeback was, at the time, a big upset for Georgetown and a nice achievement in an otherwise mediocre year. But now, with the benefit of hindsight, it represented much more than that. It was the start of an unlikely run that culminated on Saturday night with the Hoyas crushing No. 2 seed Creighton, 73-48, in the tournament championship game at Madison Square Garden.
The victory means Georgetown (13-12) will receive the league’s automatic berth in the NCAA tournament, which begins on Thursday in Indiana. It is the Hoyas’ 31st NCAA tournament appearance but first since 2015, and perhaps the most unlikely.
The Big East’s coaches picked Georgetown to finish last in the preseason poll. The Hoyas, with nine new players on the roster, then lost eight of their first 11 games before dealing with coronavirus issues in January that forced them to go three weeks between games. Ewing now says that delay helped the Hoyas regroup and rest.
Georgetown won six of its final 10 Big East games heading into the conference tournament, but it ended the regular season losing, 98-82, at Connecticut on March 6, prompting Ewing to proclaim, “We got a royal ass-kicking.”
One week later, the Hoyas were celebrating on the Madison Square Garden floor, having won four games in four days and their eighth Big East title and first since 2007.
“I keep talking about that Drake song, ‘Started from the bottom,’” Ewing told FS1 after the game. “Well, we started from the bottom, now we’re number one in the Big East.”
Saturday’s win, appropriately enough, occurred exactly 49 years after Georgetown hired John Thompson Jr. as its coach, taking a chance on a former NBA player whose coaching experience consisted of six years on the high school level. That turned out to be the most important hire in program history as Thompson eventually turned the Hoyas into one of college basketball’s best teams.
The breakthrough for Thompson came on Feb. 2, 1981 when Ewing, a 7-foot center and senior at Cambridge Rindge and Latin School near Boston, announced he would play for the Hoyas. Ewing, the nation’s top recruit, chose Georgetown over North Carolina and Boston College and exceeded the enormous hype bestowed on him before he even stepped foot on Georgetown’s campus.
Ewing led the Hoyas to their first and only NCAA tournament championship in 1984, lost in two other national title games in 1982 and 1985 and was a three-time, first-team Associated Press All-American. He is second on Georgetown’s career scoring list (2,184 points) and first in rebounds (1,306).
The New York Knicks selected Ewing with the top overall pick in the 1985 NBA draft. He played 15 seasons with the Knicks, made 11 All-Star teams and was elected into the Hall of Fame in 2008.
Shortly after retiring in 2002, he became an assistant coach for the Washington Wizards at the behest of his good friend and former rival, Michael Jordan, who was in his final NBA season with the Wizards. Ewing lasted one season with the Wizards, then served as an assistant for the Houston Rockets, Orlando Magic and Charlotte Hornets for the next 14 years, learning from veteran coaches Jeff Van Gundy, Stan Van Gundy and Steve Clifford. Along the way, Ewing reportedly interviewed for multiple NBA head coaching openings, only to see others get the gigs.
“You’re going to have doors shut in your face, but it’s how you react,” Ewing told FS1. “I didn’t pout. I just tried to get better, get better at my interviewing skills, get better at the craft, learn from all those people I worked with.”
In March 2017, Georgetown fired coach John Thompson III, Thompson’s son, who had gone 15-18 and 14-18 in the previous two seasons. Soon afterward, the Hoyas interviewed Ewing and offered him the position. And with Thompson’s blessing, Ewing accepted his first head coaching job.
So far, Ewing hasn’t brought the program back to what it once was. The Hoyas went 15-15, 19-14 and 15-17 in his first three seasons and had several players leave the program. They didn’t show marked improvement for much of this season, either.
Still, they got hot at the right time this past week in New York. On Sunday, Georgetown plans on flying to Indiana for the NCAA tournament, an achievement few thought was possible, but not Ewing.
“From the first day we met, once we got on campus, I told them we had enough talent to win the Big East, to make it to the NCAA tournament,” Ewing said. “And once you get to the NCAA tournament anything is possible.”
Shortly after Saturday’s game, FS1’s Rob Stone asked Ewing what he thought Thompson, who died last August, would have told him.
“I can’t say it on the air, let’s just say that,” Ewing said, smiling. “But I know he’s very happy.”
“Clean it up for us,” Stone said. “Give us the clean, sanitized version of it.”
“He’d tell me, ‘Boy, you shut them up. You showed them that big people are smart, as well, big people can coach,” Ewing said.