COLUMBUS, Ohio | Jason Clark and Henry Sims shook hands Friday afternoon, another piece of business in Georgetown’s season complete.
Except this wasn’t standard business. Far from it.
On the surface, the 74-59 defeat of Belmont in the NCAA tournament’s round of 64 extended the Hoyas’ season by a game, an impressive lockdown of a veteran team and potential destroyer of office pools throughout the land.
Not too deep below that, though, was the real reason for momentary satisfaction. Clark, Sims and the rest of their teammates finally had an NCAA tournament victory to their name after three agonizing years.
“We’ve known what we’ve done in the past, so it was a big thing to get this win today,” said Clark, who scored a game-high 21 points for the Hoyas (24-8).
Nearly everyone else knew Georgetown’s history as well. Its last NCAA tourney victory came in 2008 against UMBC, a triumph followed two days later with a loss to Stephen Curry and Davidson. In retrospect, that was less humbling than what was to come.
There was the NCAA miss in 2009, a year capped with an opening round NIT loss to Baylor. Ohio’s perimeter prowess knocked Georgetown out in the first round a year later, and the stumbling Hoyas encountered the Virginia Commonwealth buzzsaw in the nascent stages of its Final Four run last March.
So it hovered over Georgetown, especially with tempo-based darling Belmont (27-8) earning a matchup with the Hoyas at Nationwide Arena. It left a team that thrived despite (or perhaps in spite of) middle-of-the-pack expectations in the Big East with something else, something meaningful to prove on the grand stage March provides.
“There’s no doubt, and I would be misleading if I were to say it is not a relief,” coach John Thompson III said. “We’ve been at all ends of the spectrum, going to the Final Four, Sweet 16. The last couple years, we’ve had early exits. Because of that, naturally leading up to today there were a lot of questions.”
But there was scarcely any scar tissue to be found as the third-seeded Hoyas earned a date with 11th-seeded N.C. State (23-12) on Sunday, and maybe it’s because of the dramatic change in Georgetown’s roster.
All teams are different, of course. But Clark and Sims (15 points) loom larger than before. Otto Porter and Greg Whittington are freshmen not remotely affected by past stumbles.
And so the Hoyas shrugged when Belmont scored the game’s first basket, instead relying on an indefatigable defense to ceaselessly harass the Atlantic Sun champions.
Belmont scored the game’s first basket, then proceeded to lead for a little more than a minute for the entire game. Georgetown lost Sims, the hub of its offense, to foul trouble with more than 11 minutes left in the first half.
The Hoyas’ lead when he departed? Six points. And when halftime arrived? Georgetown was comfortably up 36-27.
The Bruins had one burst in them, closing within six points after the break before the Hoyas completed their most lopsided victory away from Verizon Center since Jan. 15.
The margin hardly mattered, though. Georgetown was on to the round of 32, a foreign place to this group of Hoyas.
The win was to be savored, not for what it meant for Georgetown’s survival but also for what the players would not need to hear any longer.
“You know it. You watch basketball,” guard Markel Starks said. “For us, we’ve been let down in years past. It feels good to be moving on, but this can’t be the only sensation. We want to continue this.”
Indeed, there is new, refreshing task facing the Hoyas. A businesslike approach could only do so much to mask the Hoyas’ relief.
Now, Clark and Sims and the rest of the roster wants another chance to shake hands, smile and move along, the possibility of the Hoyas’ deepest tournament run in five years now just 40 minutes away.
“This tournament is not about ‘Oof, let’s get that money off your back,’” Thompson said. “Now we’re going to see if we can win another one Sunday.”
—- Patrick Stevens