“They Woke Up” – Men’s Basketball Uses Press to Avoid Disaster in Opener

November 6, 2019

Photo by John Picker/The Georgetown Voice

The Georgetown men’s basketball team (1-0, Big East) kicked into high gear after a disastrous opening against Mount St. Mary’s (0-1, NEC), downing the Mountaineers 81-68 on the back of a 56-point second half. Sophomore guard James Akinjo spearheaded the comeback with 20 points, including 17 after the half, and added five assists as well. Meanwhile, senior center Omer Yurtseven imposed his will after the break and wound up with 20 points and 12 rebounds on the night. Sophomore forward Josh LeBlanc did not suit up, as he was suspended due to a violation of team rules.

“They woke up,” Head Coach Patrick Ewing repeated twice postgame.

60 seconds in, the Hoyas held a 5-0 lead after Akinjo drilled a three to open the campaign, then found Yurtseven inside on the ensuing possession. The Mountaineers went to work on the Hoyas’ man-to-man defense, however, with sophomore forward Nana Opoku scoring six as part of a 10-1 run. 

Two more threes from MSMU irritated Ewing, who quickly swapped out his starting five for a fresh quintet that included four newcomers. That group struggled immensely, getting spaced out by the Mountaineers offensively while generating next-to-no offense. 

“That’s one of the things we’ve been talking about since this summer,” Ewing said. “It starts with individual defense, and then it’s all team defense, and in the first half, it was nonexistent.”

The Hoyas would go 9:53 between field goals in the middle of the first half as they fell behind by double-digits. Amid all of this, junior guard Galen Alexander and junior guard Jahvon Blair were both whistled for travelling, while freshman forward Myron Gardner was well off the mark on a couple of looks.

“We got six new faces,” Akinjo said of the slow start. “While we practice with each other every day, you can’t simulate the intensity of a game. I think a little bit of it was coming out and trying to figure everything out, but we just missed a lot of shots also.”

The half finished 37-25, with the Hoyas shooting just 30% from the field while going 1-10 from deep. The trio of Blair, Alexander, and graduate student Terrell Allen, who spent extensive time together, were a combined 0-8. Yurtseven had only attempted five field goals against an undersized Mount St. Mary’s frontcourt, and while the visitors were shooting at a pedestrian 41.9%, that was more than sufficient against a wilting GU squad.

Photo by John Picker/The Georgetown Voice The Hoyas struggled to get Yurtseven touches as they fell behind early.Photo by John Picker/The Georgetown Voice

The Blue & Gray still couldn’t collect themselves out of the intermission, ceding a lightning quick 9-2 run that saw the Mountaineers stretch their lead to an improbable 19 points. The Hoyas were getting toyed with in the halfcourt offense as Mount St. Mary’s rammed the pick-and-roll down their throats while GU’s bigs hopelessly hedged.

“It’s still something that we’re working on,” Ewing said. “We have to do a much better jobnot only the centers, as a team.”

Blair quickly replaced sophomore guard Mac McClung, while Georgetown looked desperate for LeBlanc’s energy and defensive versatility. The possibility of a gut-punching loss was becoming harrowingly real. Akinjo, the reigning Big East Freshman of the Year, had other plans.

“I wanted to come out and be more assertive,” Akinjo said. “I’m the point guard, I have to be a leader of the team, I want to take that challenge and responsibility.”

Back-to-back threes from Akinjo and senior guard Jagan Mosely offered a glimmer of hope, but the Mountaineers’ backcourt of Jalen Gibbs and Vado Morse found their own baskets. A stop followed by a smooth Eurostep and finish through contact from Akinjo cut the lead to seven after the free throw, and Akinjo hit another trey on the Hoyas’ ensuing possession before coming up with a steal.

Between Akinjo’s motor and Mosely and Pickett’s length, the Hoyas press wreaked havoc in the second half, and they started finding transition opportunities quickly. Slicing and dicing, Akinjo finished in tight again, before freshman center Qudus Wahab scored his first points as a Hoya with a turn-and-slam while drawing the foul. Akinjo found Alexander for a triple that tied the game up as the Hoyas had shockingly erased their 19-point deficit in less than seven minutes, and had made eight consecutive field goals.

Photo by John Picker/The Georgetown Voice Alexander’s triple capped off a furious comeback.Photo by John Picker/The Georgetown Voice

“We know how talented we are as a team,” Akinjo said. “When we were down nineteen, we not once got down on ourselves. We knew we just had to step it up on the defensive end.”

Just when Capital One Arena thought that Georgetown was closing in on the kill, though, the Mountaineers battled back, continuing to inexplicably carve out space down low. The Hoyas’ second unit was getting chewed up again as Ewing looked to briefly spell Akinjo and Yurtseven, and the Mount St. Mary’s lead was six with less than seven minutes to play.

“It’s not going to just happen overnight,” Ewing noted of the second group’s development. “We have some talent there, but we need to allow them some more time to gel.”

Upon reinserting his starters, Ewing saw dividends immediately. Yurtseven hit a pair of free throws, two of his 6-6 performance from the stripe, while McClung drilled a clutch corner three off of an over-the-shoulder feed from a slashing Mosely. Then, with the Hoyas down one, Akinjo put an exclamation point on a second half that was largely marked by glimpses of what this team could be. Pulling up at the top of the key in transition, Akinjo lofted a no-look lob over a Mountaineers defender, which Yurtseven caught in stride and thundered home. The Turkish big man scored 10 points as part of the 20-1 run that seized and subsequently iced the game.

“The first half was not as good as we wantedas a team, personally,” Yurtseven commented. “The press just shifted something, got us going, got us aggressive.”

The Hoyas poured in 56 points in a second half that was played at breakneck pace, finishing 7-11 from deep in the period after their dreadful shooting start. Though the Mountaineers still managed to find easy looks and converted 52.2% of their second half opportunities, the Hoyas outrebounded their opponents 20-8 in the frame, squashing any second half opportunities.

Georgetown returns to action on Saturday against Central Arkansas (0-1, Southland). Ewing offered no answer on whether LeBlanc will be available. Tip-off is set for noon ET with a broadcast on MASN2 and on radio at The Team 980. Live stats are available at Follow @GUVoiceSports on Twitter for live coverage and coverage of all sports on the Hilltop.

Will Shanahan
is a senior in the McDonough School of Business, and former Sports Executive and Editor of The Voice. He spends his days plotting visits to downstairs Leo's when the omelet line will be short and trying to recall memories of his middling high school football career.

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