The Hoyas have found their hard hats.
On a night when St. John's injected some maim into a game, the 13th-ranked Hoyas ground out a 66-59 victory in the Big East opener for both teams on sheer guts and desire.
Frankly, Thursday night's New Year's Eve bash at the Verizon Center was exactly the kind of game the Hoyas (10-1, 1-0 Big East) would have lost virtually every time during last season's disappointing 16-15 campaign. In fact, it's precisely the kind of game Georgetown did lose twice to the Johnnies (10-3, 0-1) in the span of one galling week last March.
It wasn't a pretty affair ... by design from the standpoint of St. John's. After the Hoyas sprinted out to 21-10 lead midway through the first half behind junior guard Chris Wright (21 points, four assists) and some textbook backdoor offense against the Red Storm's man-to-man pressure, St. John's coach Norm Roberts ordered his charges to turn up the intensity on defense.
The result was a vintage case of old school Big East basketbrawl in which more intensity actually meant more elbows, more hips and a devolution into a street-style scrap. It looked like bowl season inside the Verizon Center throughout the game's closing 30 minutes, where pads and helmets were required. The refs swallowed their whistles and the Johnnies actually clawed ahead 54-53 with 8:32 remaining after a sequence of 3-point connections from Red Storm JUCO sniper Dwight Hardy (14 points).
But unlike last season, when the Hoyas folded twice in a week at Madison Square Garden when St. John's dirtied up the game, this Georgetown bunch refused to back down.
Responding with the same grit the Johnnies were doling out, Georgetown held St. John's to two field goals over the game's final 8:30 and surged to victory behind the physical resolve of post players Greg Monroe (15 points, eight rebounds, five assists) and Julian Vaughn (eight points, nine rebounds).
"Even for the Big East, they are a physical team," said Georgetown coach John Thompson III, whose Hoyas next face DePaul Sunday in Chicago. "We were always attacking as opposed to being back on our heels, defensively as well as offensively. We are not comparing this year and last year, but that was one of the main differences."
It was more than the main difference; it was the glaring game-definer. Last season's youngish, softish Georgetown team was cowed in the face of the Red Storm's physical onslaught. This seasoned Georgetown squad actually seemed to relish the rough play.
The 6-foot-11 Monroe, often criticized for his passive play last season, scored nine of his points down the stretch with the game on the balance, more important than a putback bucket to put the Hoyas up 62-57 with 2:22 remaining. And Vaughn spent almost as much time on the floor as the night's leather Rawlings, sparking the crowd of 9,376 fans with a follow-up jam to put the Hoyas back up top, 55-54, moments after Hardy's last triple and collecting every meaningful board down the stretch.
"Jules came up with a couple of key rebounds and really worked," said Thompson of Vaughn, whose noggin twice thudded audibly on the floor during intense melees under the rim. "Yes, Julian gets the hard-hat award tonight."
Actually, all five of Georgetown's starters deserve a healthy New Year's 'harumph' for Thursday night's soulful response to a much-improved St. John's squad. Aside from the aforementioned trio, sophomore off-guard Jason Clark (seven points, four rebounds) was a steady defensive presence, and junior swingman Austin Freeman (15 points) performed with customary deadly efficiency, making six of eight shots.
But more than any stat-line will ever show, it was the Hoyas' resilience in the face of a physical opponent and past failure that carried the day and provided promise for the coming conference gantlet.
"One thing we want to focus on is being mentally strong in the face of adversity," said Wright, who committed just one turnover against nonstop fullcourt pressure from the Red Storm. "You're going to have your ups and downs throughout the season in this league, but you've got to fight through it. That's what strong, experienced teams do."