The Georgetown men’s basketball team picked up a crucial victory on the brightest of stages Thursday night, overwhelming Texas 82-66 at Madison Square Garden in the opening game of the 2K Empire Classic. For the fourth time this season, the Hoyas entered the locker room at halftime facing a deficit, and they resoundingly assuaged concerns that have popped up to this point in the season with a dominating second-half performance on both ends of the floor. Sophomore guard Mac McClung and junior forward Jamorko Pickett were among the team’s four double-digit scorers, going for 19 and 15 points, respectively, as Georgetown shot a blistering 50.9% from the field.
“We took a step forward because it wasn’t just individuals,” Head Coach Patrick Ewing said. “Jamorko scored, [sophomore guard] James [Akinjo] scored, everyone played and did something to help us win the game tonight.”
The Georgetown (4-1, Big East) defense got off to an impressive start after Ewing had spent the majority of his early-season press conferences challenging the unit to improve, as they forced three turnovers on Texas’ (4-1, Big 12) opening three possessions. Sophomore forward Josh LeBlanc was quickly injected into the game at the 17:53 mark, and his transition layup pushed an early Hoya lead to 6-3 after McClung hit a triple from the right wing. Senior center Omer Yurtseven finished successfully through heavy contact, and then stuffed junior forward Jericho Sims when Sims tried to take him one-on-one from beyond the arc.
After those opening four minutes, however, the halfcourt defensive issues resurfaced. The Longhorns’ well-spaced, four-guard offense featured a level of ball movement the Hoyas haven’t seen to this point in the season, and their extra passes created plenty of open 3-point looks. GU was dealt a major blow when Yurtseven was whistled for two offensive fouls in the span of 12 seconds, sending him to the bench for the remainder of the half.
The Hoyas team we’ve seen to this point in the season might have collapsed at this point, down 13-8 and with Yurtseven out of the equation. However, LeBlanc stepped up in Yurtseven’s stead, drawing a charge and taking the ball to the rim in the post on either side of another McClung squared-up three. Back-to-back buckets from Pickett pushed Georgetown in front 19-18 before another McClung pull-up capped a 13-5 run. As LeBlanc got in on the action with a triple of his own before McClung, brimming with confidence, stuffed a long fadeaway jumper, one thing became eminently clear: losing one player won’t stop this team from scoring.
“We knew it was a big game so I think that brought us together a lot,” McClung said. “They’re ranked number 22 and that made us kind of wake up a little bit.”
Still, a leaky defense meant the Hoyas were, at best, trading the lead with Texas. Georgetown drew fouls ad nauseam, as they did in last Sunday’s win over Georgia State, and hit the double bonus with three minutes remaining in the first half. Ewing used a small-ball lineup with Pickett and junior forward Galen Alexander as the bigs for a stretch, but soon reinserted freshman center Qudus Wahab. Akinjo and LeBlanc both took poor shots as the half wound down, while the Longhorns cashed in on both possessions. A last-second putback by Wahab narrowed the Hoyas’ deficit to five, 42-37, as the half came to a close.
Though the Blue & Gray were shooting the ball well, Texas was 8-for-18 from beyond the arc at the half, and 12 of their 17 field goals were assisted. Georgetown’s defensive rebounding woes that haunted them against a vastly undersized Georgia State team popped off the stat sheet again, as the Longhorns had two more offensive rebounds (nine) than the Hoyas had defensive rebounds.
Yurtseven was back on the floor to begin the second half and immediately took over the game on one end of the floor, scoring the Hoyas’ first eight of the half with an impressive array of hook shots and fadeaways. Two more confident strokes from Pickett, playing in front of former UT star and fellow spindly shooter Kevin Durant, comprised the back end of a 9-2 Georgetown run. A pair of Texas threes sandwiched Pickett’s dribble pull-up, however, as the Hoyas couldn’t string together the defensive stands their offensive exploits deserved.
“I knew I could score like this, have an offensive game like this every game,” Pickett said. “Today I took it personally and I knew I just had to start the game off strong and come with a lot of fire in order for us to win.”
What followed the under-16 media timeout, though, was undoubtedly some of the best basketball Georgetown has played under Ewing. A well-executed inbounds play for Wahab led to two free throws, before LeBlanc shoveled to the freshman for a two-handed slam on the ensuing possession. An Akinjo steal led to a floater from graduate student guard Terrell Allen for Allen’s only points of the evening to push the GU lead to four. Allen and senior guard Jagan Mosely, who assisted the floater, had plus-minuses of +14 and +20, respectively. Wahab, a fixture of the second rotation that has struggled to gel thus far, was +18.
“When he went in,” Ewing said, “I told him, ‘You’re not a freshman right now. Energy and effort, set screens, roll, when you get your post-ups, take your-post ups…I thought he did an outstanding job”.
Georgetown continued to manufacture baskets without their leading scorer Yurtseven, as Mosely had a strong take to the hole before LeBlanc scrapped his way to another layup. Texas had gone nearly five minutes without a field goal when junior guard Matt Coleman III converted in tight, but McClung pegged him right back with a fake jumper to open up space for a layup of his own.
Georgetown’s two All-Big East freshmen guards from a season ago took over the show from there as the buckets dried up for the Longhorns. Akinjo scored eight straight Hoya points exclusively from the stripe as Texas grew increasingly frustrated; McClung and Akinjo combined to draw 15 fouls on the evening while Georgetown shot 18 more free throws than UT (28 vs. 10). Yurtseven was disqualified when he picked up his fifth foul with 5:28 left, but Wahab had acquitted himself well defensively throughout.
“We did a much better job of guarding the ball individually,” Ewing said of the second-half defensive effort. “Even when they penetrated, we were able to cut them off. Our bigs came in to contest shots, and even when they got the ball to the 3-point line, we were able to close out.”
With 2:46 remaining, Ewing implored the Garden crowd to cheer on the group that had just put together one of the most complete wins of his tenure. The Hoyas blitzed their way to 45 points against the 15th-ranked defense nationally in the second half, but what separated this performance from the two other second-half comebacks this season was the team’s defensive effort against a quality opponent—Georgetown held Texas to 22.2% shooting in the half and allowed only two offensive rebounds. The Longhorns played into the Hoyas’ hands by resorting to more isolation-ball instead of whipping the ball around the perimeter as they had done in the early stages, but take nothing away from Ewing’s group.
“I don’t care who gets the points, as long as at the end of the night, we get the win,” Ewing finished.
Georgetown returns to action tomorrow night against the winner of the matchup between Duke (4-0, ACC) and Cal (4-0, Pac-12) on the other side of the 2K Classic final round bracket. The game is set to tip off at 7 PM ET, with a TV broadcast on ESPN2, a radio broadcast on 1450 AM, and live stats available at guhoyas.com. Follow @GUVoiceSports on Twitter for live coverage and coverage of all sports on the Hilltop.