- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 25, 2007

Perhaps the ultimate measure of a team’s greatness is whether it can show up with less than its best stuff against an elite opponent and still succeed.

No. 12 Georgetown did exactly that yesterday against 10th-ranked Pittsburgh, overcoming a turnover-ridden first half and an atrocious performance on the boards to clip the Panthers 61-53 and claim sole possession of the Big East’s top slot.

Boasting an 11-game winning streak, the Hoyas (22-5, 12-2 Big East) head to Syracuse (20-8, 9-5) tomorrow night looking to set a new program standard for consecutive conference wins (12) and lock down the school’s first outright regular-season league title since 1989.

“First place. That feels nice,” said Georgetown center Roy Hibbert, who had 12 points, five rebounds and four blocks. “We still have two games to play, but it sure would be nice to bring home a regular-season championship to Georgetown.”

Throughout most of yesterday’s action at Verizon Center, it didn’t appear the Hoyas would be delivering any hardware to the Hilltop. Coach John Thompson III admitted his team was extremely anxious before the rematch with Pittsburgh (24-5, 11-3), which handed the Hoyas their last loss six weeks ago, 74-69 at Petersen Events Center. And Georgetown’s early play certainly displayed that anxiety and excitement, as the normally meticulous Hoyas — owners of the nation’s most efficient offense statistically — opened the game with four consecutive turnovers and an errant 3-point attempt from freshman forward DaJuan Summers.

“We had a lot of energy, and we let it out in the wrong way with a lot of turnovers,” said junior forward Jeff Green, who collected his second foul midway through the first half and was a total non-factor before intermission.

In spite of nine first-half turnovers and the prolonged absence of Green and Hibbert, also strapped with two fouls, the Hoyas closed the first half on a 6-2 spurt to take a 29-26 lead.

Once there, Thompson eschewed his customary playbook and chalk chat for straight talk and a simple mandate: “Relax and play.”

After the Hoyas fell behind 44-36 on a 3-pointer by Ronald Ramon with 11:52 left, the message finally sank in. Or perhaps it was then that Green simply grew tired of watching his teammates’ remedial routine. Whatever the case, Green decided that the Hoyas were not going to get swept out of their own building in front of a CBS audience in the league’s regular-season showcase game. And Green decided he was not going to let hobbled Pittsburgh center Aaron Gray (10 points, six rebounds) overshadow what was supposed to be his coronation performance.

So, with the Big East’s top seed, the streak and the league MVP laurels hanging in the balance, Green took over. During the game’s final 11 minutes, the 6-foot-9 forward had eight points, two rebounds, two assists and two steals.

“I just tried to will my team to win,” said Green, who finished with 14 points, five rebounds, three assists.

The forward’s signature plays during the stretch were a pair of outstanding assists on baskets by sophomore guard Jessie Sapp, which began and ended the game-deciding 8-2 Georgetown run.

The first pass covered only eight feet from the right elbow but rated high marks on the degree-of-difficulty scale. With Clinton native Sam Young (11 points) on his hip, Green feinted just enough toward the rim to draw Pittsburgh forward Levon Kendall out one step and then tossed a backdoor pass over Kendall to Sapp to give the Hoyas a 51-49 lead with 3:24 left.

Green’s second pass — after a pair of his own free throws and a steal-and-layup combo by Georgetown point guard Jon Wallace (17 points) — covered about 50 feet and rated high marks for court awareness. With the sellout crowd of 20,038 blue and gray-clad fans thundering around him, Green deflected a pass intended for Pitt’s Mike Cook toward halfcourt, beat Cook and Young to the ball and then fired a rainbowed pass downcourt to a streaking Sapp before falling out of bounds amid the Cook/Young double-team. Sapp made the uncontested layup to put the Hoyas ahead 57-51 with two minutes remaining, and Wallace finished off the Panthers from the free-throw line.

“It’s rare that you lose a game when you get 20 more attempts from the field and have less turnovers than the other team, but that’s what happened,” Pittsburgh coach Jamie Dixon said after the Panthers crushed the Hoyas on the glass, collecting a season-high 22 offensive rebounds, only to watch Green steal the game away down the stretch. “We knew how good a player [Green] was, so it’s no surprise. His versatility sticks out. He’s got the size and athleticism, and it’s very rare to have the skills that he has, too.”

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