- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 18, 2006

DAYTON, Ohio. — It’s only fitting Ashanti Cook provided Georgetown’s rescue recipe.

The clutch senior erupted down the stretch yesterday to save the stagnant Hoyas and deliver the program’s first NCAA tournament victory since 2001, lifting Georgetown to a 54-49 first-round victory over Northern Iowa at University of Dayton Arena.

Cook came off the bench to score 11 of his 14 points over the final 7:45, turning a gut-twisting defensive struggle into Georgetown’s 21st first-round victory in 23 appearances.

“He’s a senior,” Georgetown coach John Thompson III said. “When he was sitting over there on the bench in foul trouble, he had a chance to get composed. … We needed somebody to step up, and Ashanti arrived right on time. Those were huge shots he hit.”

Thompson was referring to a pair of consecutive baskets Cook delivered immediately upon checking into the game, with the Hoyas (22-9) clinging to a 39-38 lead and Northern Iowa determined to deny Georgetown center Roy Hibbert (17 points, nine rebounds) any point-blank touches.

Cook drilled a huge 3-pointer from the right wing with 7:45 left to stretch the lead to 42-38 and then gave the seventh-seeded Hoyas a working margin and their largest lead at 44-38 with an acrobatic fall-away jumper from the foul line with 5:04 remaining.

The 6-foot-2 Cook, a native of Inglewood, Calif., picked up his third foul just more than a minute into the second half. But he iced an ugly, grappling affair by converting four consecutive free throws in the last 20 seconds and adding an exclamation-point slam just before time expired.

“That was my first dunk in four years, and it felt good. Hey, I’ve got a little bounce, a little something-something,” said Cook, grinning in the locker room as his teammates ribbed him about the debut dunk. “The free throws were bigger. I just tried to take myself back home, back to my backyard by myself. You know how kids are always dreaming they’re at the stripe with the game on the line? I was no different. I tried to go back there in my mind because if you think about the actual situation, you’ll put too much pressure on yourself.”

Georgetown has the day off before meeting No. 2 seed Ohio State in tomorrow’s second round. The Buckeyes (26-5) rallied from a four-point halftime deficit to overwhelm Davidson 70-62 in the site’s first action of the day.

Northern Iowa, which has lost three consecutive first-round NCAA tournament games by five points each, was billed as a gritty defensive team. And the Panthers (23-10) didn’t disappoint.

Their defensive plan was to focus on Georgetown’s high-post triggerman, Jeff Green, and employ a loose man-to-man defense on his teammates. The ploy worked; a harassed Green finished with a career-low two points, missing all five of his field goal attempts.

But by overplaying Green, the Panthers routinely left Hibbert alone with only one undersized defender in the paint. And Georgetown’s 7-foot-2 sophomore responded with one of his better performances, finishing 8-for-10 from the field and carrying the Hoyas until Cook’s closing spurt.

Much of Hibbert’s best work, and indeed the entire team’s, came on the defensive end, where the Hoyas were suffocating in the second half.

Thompson was irate by the number of open looks Northern Iowa was able to get in building a 30-26 halftime edge. And after an impassioned halftime speech from their second-year maestro, the Hoyas gave up just 19 points on 25 percent shooting in the second half. The Panthers began the second half by missing 16 of their first 18 shots — virtually all of which were contested — and endured one stunning drought of 9:22 without a field goal.

“Coach was hot at halftime because of our defense,” senior swingman Darrel Owens said. “The first thing he said was that they were getting way too many uncontested shots, and that had to stop. That was our focus for the second half, and I think our team defense was the primary reason we won the game.”

No player on the current Georgetown roster had experienced an NCAA tournament environment — much less tasted success — before yesterday’s game. And perhaps the ice-breaking victory, however grinding and aesthetically ugly, will loosen them up for tomorrow’s matchup. And potentially beyond.

“After our first game, now our jitters are out, so it’s time to play basketball,” Cook said. “Like we said before, we’re not here to participate, we’re here to win … the whole thing.”

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