Jerry Izenberg was a beat reporter for the New York Giants who wrote a book entitled No Medals for Trying. It’s an entire book about the Giants preparing for a matchup with the Philadelphia Eagles in 1989, which they lost. More importantly, it’s about the brutal, zero-sum nature of sports, and how all the work in the world goes unrecognized if the end result is a loss.
Georgetown men’s basketball has suffered a lot of losses recently. Blowouts, heartbreakers, you name it. They spent exactly four days on the tournament bubble before the season collapsed in on itself. Nobody is going to be writing about how great this team was. Nobody is going to be awarding this team a medal.
But every Hoya fan will give this team a salute. Every person that bleeds blue and gray will look back on the players who stayed with fondness. Everybody who knows what happened will know that this team, more than any other team in history, exemplified what it means to be a Hoya. Everyone who has fought adversity in their lives with unrelenting drive has a kindred spirit with this group of men.
The season began with great expectations. Our lineup looked stacked: Mac McClung, James Akinjo, and Josh LeBlanc, Georgetown’s three members of the 2019 Big East All-Freshman team, were coming back stronger than ever, with the growing pains of last year out of the way. Though we bid goodbye to Jessie Govan, he was replaced by Omer Yurtseven, a transfer from NC State who was dominant on a rate basis. Jagan Mosely rounded out the starting lineup as a tough defender and fan favorite. The bench was deep as well: Jamorko Pickett and Jahvon Blair would be the first ones in the game, Galen Alexander and Terrell Allen were sharpshooting transfers, and Qudus Wahab and Myron Gardner were exciting freshmen looking to make their mark early.
Maybe this lineup of uber-athletic positionless players wouldn’t have succeeded if they had all stayed together. Players would complain about minutes, selfish play would be the norm, and the team would decay from within. Those seemed like good problems to have by season’s end.
Perhaps we should’ve known that something was wrong with this season before the first game was even played. Media day included the presumptive starting lineup, but with Pickett instead of LeBlanc. We would not know the reason for LeBlanc’s absence, and his subsequent suspension for Game 1, until the season had already begun to unravel. Regardless, the first game of the year provided a harsh reality check. Mount St. Mary’s jumped out to an early lead which grew as large as 19 points before we finally woke up, Yurtseven dominated, and we emerged with the victory.
Defense was an issue early in the season, and the Hoyas spent a long period of time where they didn’t win any games when they scored less than 80 points. Even wins against Central Arkansas and Georgia State felt too close for comfort, and a home loss to Penn State in the Big East-Big Ten Challenge was really concerning. It felt as though this team had no chance to live up to expectations, and would once again be on the outside of the tournament field looking in.
The Hoyas finally put it all together in their trip to New York for the 2K Empire Classic. The second half of the game against No. 22 Texas was a masterclass in playing as a team, as they clamped down on defense while sprinting ahead of the Longhorns offensively. McClung played with explosiveness, scoring 19 while Wahab showed flashes of brilliance, playing the majority of the game and collecting 9 points. Though they fell to No. 1 Duke in an eight-point loss, they showed the nation that they could compete with anybody under the bright lights of Madison Square Garden.
The boys returned from New York with a renewed sense of confidence, but we were unaware of the avalanche just on the horizon. If anything, the UNC-Greensboro loss was in character: the team was still inconsistent and often not on the same page with each other. We played down to our competition and shot terribly. In short, it was pretty normal.
Until it wasn’t.
The gut punch came on December 2nd. As always, Georgetown played its cards close to the vest in a bout of Hoya Paranoia. But they could not hide the fact that Akinjo and LeBlanc had left the team. After that, the rumors started swirling in. LeBlanc, along with Alexander and Gardner had been involved in a sexual harassment and robbery case. News outlets and blogs, including student news groups on campus, were reporting all kinds of less-than-credible sources implying Akinjo was involved with the nastiness, tarnishing his reputation while Georgetown stood by. Grouping Akinjo with LeBlanc in their press release was inexcusable in my mind, and the program treated Akinjo with a complete lack of respect to deflect attention from the real issue. Eleven days after LeBlanc transferred, Alexander and Gardner announced they were leaving the team too. Suddenly, a team that was deep in reserves had thinned out considerably.
The funniest thing happened after that. They won.
They rattled off six victories in a row, and the best part was that they played with consistency and unselfishness. They picked up quality road wins at Oklahoma State and at SMU, where Allen picked up 10 assists compared to zero turnovers. They soundly beat the teams they were supposed to beat, including UMBC, Samford, and American. Yurtseven dominated, notching a 30-point game against Samford. Perhaps most importantly, they beat Syracuse. They put it all together in that game, trailing just once in the early going and keeping the Orange at arm’s length the rest of the way. It was about as good an effort as any team could deliver having just lost four rotation players.
Then, the injuries hit.
McClung was poked in the eye in the win over American, taking him out for the first two conference games. All was thought to be well when he returned for the Big East home opener against St. John’s and dropped 24 points, but it was a harbinger of things to come. The boys kept their heads above water with wins against St. John’s and No. 25 Creighton, but those were sandwiched between heartbreaking losses to Marquette and Butler at home, as well as difficult losses on the road to Villanova and Xavier. McClung went down again after the Butler game with a foot injury, effectively for good, as he made one eight-minute cameo the rest of the season.
Their next game was an epic at St. John’s on Super Bowl Sunday. Without McClung, Blair stepped into a starting role and contributed a spectacular 23-point effort. The Hoyas rallied from down 17 to escape with a one-point victory, and Yurtseven capped off the comeback with a game-winning layup.
Two games later, disaster struck again. The Hoyas trailed DePaul at home, and a loss would put their postseason hopes on life support. Late in the second half, Yurtseven went down, and for me personally, this was a devastating injury. I felt that fans didn’t appreciate Yurtseven’s efforts and dominance over the course of the season. In the home game vs. Seton Hall, he had a cool 19 points and 15 rebounds in a close loss, and that line is no joke. He played phenomenally in his time here, and I hope fans are grateful for what he did on the court.
How did the Hoyas respond? Just the same way they had been the entire season: fighting back. The boys surged to a win over DePaul behind Blair’s 30 points, clinching the game on two free throws from senior forward George Muresan. With the odds stacked against them, they walked into Hinkle Fieldhouse for a showdown with No. 18 Butler, and they refused to admit defeat. They shot 10-of-15 from three point land and gutted their way to an unthinkable upset victory. Allen was the hero of the game, coming away with a game-high 22 points. Bracketologists everywhere had Georgetown on the right side of the bubble, remarking that the Hoyas were as resilient as any team in the land. If we could just finish 3-3, that would give us a respectable 8-10 mark in conference play and keep the postseason alive.
It couldn’t last, and we knew it couldn’t. The boys didn’t win a game after that. They fought hard in every game they played, and the home losses made me sick to my stomach. Xavier and Villanova came back to haunt us again, and the team was just depleted. Our game against St. John’s in the Big East Tournament was a perfect microcosm of the season. We started with a big push, maintained the lead, then Allen went down with cramps and we ran out of gas. St. John’s ended the game on a 23-0 run, crushing my spirits and ending our season on a whimper. Even though Yurtseven came back, he wasn’t himself, and we simply had no chance.
Throughout it all, this team never gave up. They fought to the bitter end, refusing to accept defeat until the final horn sounded. Mosely played 40 minutes nearly every game going down the stretch, and Blair, Allen, and Pickett all averaged over 35 minutes. Wahab stepped up his game as a starter. Muresan, freshman center Timothy Ighoefe, and sophomore guard Jaden Robinson played dependable minutes when they were called upon, embodying the next man up mentality of this crew. The men who stayed showed us the meaning of discipline, resilience, hard work, and sacrifice even in defeats, in games where they had no chance. Coach Ewing deserves a lot of credit for fostering this kind of culture where only the strongest survive.
This is a basketball team that I will love until the day I die. Thank you to the 2019-20 Georgetown Hoyas men’s basketball team. It’s hard to put into words what this group means to me, an ordinary diehard. They won’t win any medals. But they tried hard, harder than anyone in the country. That’s all you can ask for.
“Fight on, my men,” Sir Andrew said.
“A little I am hurt, but not yet slain.
I’ll just lie down and bleed awhile.
Then I’ll rise, and fight again.”
Image Credits: John Picker/The Georgetown Voice