You might call it buzzer-ed’s luck.
For the second time in as many games, Georgetown fell prey to the cruel hand of fate in the closing seconds at MCI Center last night. Last Saturday, Villanova guard Derrick Snowden shocked the Hoyas with an end-to-end drive and game-tying layup with a little more than two seconds remaining. Last night, a potential game-winning attempt by Georgetown sophomore shooting guard Gerald Riley came just a fraction of an instant after the final buzzer sounded, dooming the Hoyas to a 75-74 loss to Connecticut before 11,223 stunned blue and gray backers.
The loss bursts Georgetown’s mythical NCAA tournament bubble. With their NCAA hopes now officially in tatters, the Hoyas (15-10, 6-7 Big East) go to Syracuse hoping to piece together some momentum heading into the Big East tournament (March 6-9).
“I thought these guys played their hearts out the whole game,” Georgetown coach Craig Esherick said after watching his team fall to 1-5 in games decided by less than five points. “The way these guys have practiced and played all season, I think we’re eventually going to win some of these close games.”
As usual, last night’s game didn’t need to devolve into a Pepto-swiller. The Hoyas parlayed a strong performance from power forward Mike Sweetney (16 points, eight rebounds) into a decent cushion heading into the game’s closing minutes. When Sweetney scored along the baseline with 8:09 remaining to put the Hoyas up 64-56, it seemed the Hoyas were poised to pull away and finally silence their stretch-run blues.
But just as they did against Villanova on Saturday, the Hoyas allowed the Huskies (18-6, 10-3) to scream back into the game late. After sophomore forward Caron Butler (23 points, six rebounds) carried the Huskies for most of the game, guards Ben Gordon (21 points) and Tony Robertson (eight points) took over with the game on the line, accounting for the team’s final three field goals. Robertson gave UConn its first lead of the second half at 70-69 on a slashing hoop in transition with 2:42 remaining. And Gordon delivered the dagger, draining an uncontested 3-pointer with 47 seconds left to put the Huskies up 75-72.
“I couldn’t believe I was that wide open,” Gordon said of the shot.
If Gordon couldn’t believe his good fortune, most in attendance couldn’t believe what they watched over the closing seconds. After Georgetown senior captain Kevin Braswell (19 points) pulled the Hoyas within one just seconds later, drawing a foul and draining a pair of free throws with 39.7 seconds left, Esherick made a seemingly dubious decision.
Even though there was just a 4.7-second difference between the shot clock and the game clock, Esherick instructed his team not to foul the Huskies. Connecticut, one of the Big East’s more suspect teams from the stripe, had hit just 11 of 18 free throws on the night. But not only did the Hoyas not foul, they didn’t even employ the program’s vintage pressure to the Huskies, who are also one of the most turnover-prone teams in the league.
No foul. No fullcourt press. No chance?
“I thought about fouling,” Esherick said, trying to explain his tactics. “Then I thought that we had enough time to get a shot off once we stopped them and got the rebound. I also thought that we had enough time to call timeout.”
Asked minutes later whether he would have employed Esherick’s no-foul, no-pressure strategy, UConn coach Jim Calhoun admitted he and assistant Dave Leitao discussed the move in the Huskies’ locker room after the game. Leitao said he would have done the same thing.
Asked if he agreed, Calhoun replied with a grin, “That’s would Dave would have done.”
Without the slightest pressure in his face, Butler dribbled the ball unchallenged to the top of the key and simply watched with the rest of the crowd in amazement as the clock ticked down. With two seconds on the shot clock and six seconds on the game clock, Butler heaved up a 3-pointer that clanged off the iron. Braswell swooped along the baseline to collect the ball, but by the time he turned upcourt, 90 feet from the hoop, he had just four seconds with which to work. He did not call timeout but darted upcourt, which Esherick later agreed was the right move.
“In situations like that, coach doesn’t want us to call timeout because it gives them time to set up their defense,” said Braswell. “It’s easy to say you could have done this or that after the game, but when you’re out there in the moment, it’s tough. … I thought I had like six seconds.”
Braswell pushed his way to the top of the arc with one second and dropped a pass to Riley on his right wing. Just as Riley went into the final elements of his stroke, the clock went off and all three officials threw their hands in the air to signal that the shot did not beat the clock. Not that it would have mattered; his jumper from 18 feet, like the Hoyas’ season, clanked off the iron with the buzzer blaring amid the din.