NEW YORK — He’s not Willis Reed, but senior center Bradley Hayes’ return from a broken hand at Madison Square Garden might be what the Georgetown men’s basketball team (15-17, 7-11 Big East) needs in order to win four games in four days at the Big East Tournament and earn an improbable berth to the NCAA Tournament.
The No. 8 seed Hoyas took the first step Wednesday night, as they defeated No. 9 seed DePaul (9-22, 3-15 Big East) 70-53 in the First Round of the Big East Tournament.
In his first game back since breaking his left hand in practice on Feb. 11, Hayes had 10 points and seven rebounds and senior guard D’Vauntes Smith-Rivera had a game-high 20 points to lead the way for the Hoyas, whose last victory came over a month ago, a Feb. 9 home win against St. John’s.
That game was the last time that Hayes had seen the floor for the Hoyas, as he broke his hand in practice just a few days later. Georgetown suffered in his absence, as the Hoyas lost six consecutive games before their win Wednesday night, which gives them a quarterfinal showdown against No. 1 seed Villanova (27-4, 16-2 Big East) at noon tomorrow.
“It feels a lot better than losing. You go through the stretch that we’ve been through, it’s hell. It’s really, really hard,” said Georgetown Head Coach John Thompson III. “Having the big fella back, being here in this city, being here in this building, this tournament, it feels good.”
Hayes’ difference was not felt only in the stat sheet in his 20 minutes of play. His presence, marked by a black brace on his left hand, as the director of traffic defensively for the Hoyas helped them limit the Blue Demons to 38 percent shooting overall for the game, and 53 points for the game, the fewest points allowed by Georgetown since holding Maryland-Eastern Shore to 48 on Dec. 1.
“It goes above and beyond what shows up on this,” said Thompson pointing to the box score at the press conference. “Bradley gives his teammates confidence. They feel safe when he’s on the court. I said earlier that is kind of likes he’s Linus’ blanket: they feel safer when he’s out there.”
The Hoyas showed the boost from the opening tip. After the Blue Demons started the game up 4-2, the Hoyas used an 18-8 run to take a 20-10 lead at the 9:09 mark of the first half. The Blue Demons cut the the lead to as little as three points, 27-24, after a drive by junior guard Darrick Wood before the Hoyas closed the half on an 8-0 run to take a 35-24 halftime lead.
The Blue Demons began the second half on an 11-4 run to cut the Hoyas’ lead to as little as four points, 39-35, after a putback from senior forward Myke Henry at the 14:32 mark. The Hoyas responded and took control of the game from that point on, as they embarked on a 16-4 run that gave them a double-digit lead, 55-39, with 8:30 left to play that they never surrendered. The closest the Blue Demons got after that was 13 points.
“The guys never stopped fighting,” said Thompson. “They also never stopped believing, which is difficult when you’re going through the stretch we went through. They understand if we get everyone out there, we play well, we can play with anyone. We’ve shown that.
Freshman guard Eli Cain was the only Blue Demon to score in double-figures, as he had 14 points and five rebounds. DePaul committed 17 turnovers in the game, which the Hoyas converted into 18 points. DePaul will continue its nine-year streak of not making the NCAA Tournament or NIT since 2007.
“That got us in trouble,” said DePaul Head Coach Dave Leitao of the turnovers. “When you play in a tournament situation, both teams are playing for their lives. You pay a price for it, and Georgetown did a really good job of making us a pay a price for it.”
The Hoyas have a quick turnaround tomorrow with a noon tipoff against the Wildcats, who swept the regular season series, including an 84-71 win this past Saturday. A loss will most likely end Georgetown’s season, as they will not be eligible for an NIT berth with a losing record. Winning the Big East Tournament is the only way that the Hoyas can earn a postseason berth, one that will earn them a spot in the NCAA Tournament.
Hayes and his teammates know that’s a long way away, considering the Hoyas need to win three games in three days to complete the feat. But they know they have a rare chance to hit the reset button on what’s been a disappointing 2015-16 season.
“We didn’t have the greatest season,” said Hayes. “It didn’t turn out the way we wanted to. We know right now we can turn it around. We just take it one game a time.”