Sports

Five more months of hope: The story of the 2007 Georgetown basketball team

Published April 2, 2022


Patrick Ewing, Jr. is not here anymore, and maybe that’s for the best. Sometimes, stepping out of the comfort zone is the best way to move forward, even if it means moving into uncharted territory. Trying new things you have never tried before, learning things you have never learned before. Ewing, Jr. has been hired as the head basketball coach for the Newfoundland Growlers of the Canadian Elite Basketball League, leaving his post as the Men’s Basketball Alumni Coordinator with Georgetown and removing the last vestige of the 2006-07 squad that filled the Hilltop with hope—the last Hoyas team to make the Final Four. 

In researching this article, one theme popped up at every turn. In every game recap, in all the YouTube highlights- hope. This Georgetown team fought to the very end of every game and always thought they could win, even when they lost. A quiet confidence blanketed the program built on the historic impressiveness of Georgetown basketball, strong recruiting and recent success after five years in the proverbial desert.

Coming off a Sweet Sixteen appearance where they came the closest of anyone to defeating the eventual national champions, the Hoyas boasted a No. 8 ranking in the national preseason polls as the 2006-07 season kicked off. Returning three starters—forward Jeff Green, center Roy Hibbert and point guard Jonathan Wallace—from the previous season, the Hoyas opened the 2006-07 season with high expectations.

There were also the three new kids. DaJuan Summers was the local star of the 2006 recruiting class, a five-star recruit at small forward who was named the Baltimore County Player of the Year twice by the Baltimore Sun. Vernon Macklin, a five-star recruit himself at the power forward position, came from Hargrave Military Academy in Virginia and was considered a top three forward in the high school class of 2006. And then finally there was Patrick Ewing, Jr. He was a junior forward and transfer from Indiana and would come off the bench as an energy guy who would bring defensive intensity and hustle. Ewing, Jr. was forced to sit out a season following his transfer to Georgetown and in his first year back he was ready to join the team his father made famous. 

During the season opener in November, a surprisingly tough victory against Hartford, a pregame montage of highlights of the past played on the video board as the Hoyas celebrated 100 years of its men’s basketball program. The video featured the 1984 national championship team when John Thompson Jr. and Patrick Ewing ruled the Hilltop. Now, 23 years later, their sons were attempting to get the program back to that level. After seven games, however, it looked like the Hoyas’ special season had gone off the rails. They were already out of the Top 25. Old Dominion, a team that had been in the NIT the year before, dismantled the Hoyas 75-62 in front of the student-dominated crowd at McDonough Arena. Back-to-back losses to Oregon and No. 11 Duke nearly sent Georgetown on a spiral, but the Hoyas hit the easiest part of their schedule when they needed it most. Wins against James Madison, Oral Roberts, Winston-Salem and Towson gave them the momentum to finish their non-conference schedule on a six-game win streak and the Hoyas entered Big East conference play sitting at 10-3. Hope for what was supposed to be a special season for the Hoyas was back on track. 

The Hoyas opened their conference schedule with a matchup at home against No. 17 Notre Dame, who they defeated with smothering defense and a Princeton-style offense that worked to perfection with backdoor layups and open jumpers. Georgetown played like a team that deserved to be ranked in the Top 10 but followed up their upset victory with two consecutive losses to Villanova and No. 7 Pittsburgh. Both were tightly-contested matchups, and the Hoyas were not fazed by the losses—even if the media was.

“That’s just a very good team,” John Thompson III said following the loss to Pittsburgh. “I don’t think we played poorly, but when we made mistakes, they capitalized on it.” Thompson’s indifference to the game seemed to energize the Hoyas, who snapped their two-game losing streak with a beatdown of Rutgers. The win sparked another large winning streak and the Hoyas finished the season winning 12 of 13—including wins in rematches against Villanova and No. 10 Pittsburgh. Additionally, the Hoyas picked up back-to-back victories against ranked teams with defeats of No. 11 Marquette and No. 23 West Virginia in dominant fashions. Their strong finish earned them the top seed in the Big East tournament and a bye to the quarterfinal round. Three wins in three days and Georgetown could claim their first Big East championship in 18 years. Hope had turned to hype.

In their quarterfinal game, the Hoyas faced off against Villanova for the third time that season. Although the Wildcats were the ninth-seed in the Big East, this third matchup would be just as tightly contested as the other two. Even as Georgetown raced out to an absurd 26-2 lead marked by hot-shooting, by the closing minutes, the Hoya lead shrunk to single digits. Jessie Sapp split his free throws to give Georgetown a 56-45 lead with 1:43 left, but Villanova stayed in it. Only a minute later, Georgetown’s lead was down to six points and Wildcat guard Scottie Reynolds had an open look from three—but he missed. Georgetown grabbed the rebound and advanced to the Big East Tournament semifinal, where they would battle Notre Dame for a chance to reach the tournament final. The last time the Hoyas made it to the final—1996—John Thompson Jr. was the coach, Allen Iverson was the star player, and UConn legend Ray Allen buried a ludicrous floater to steal the Big East championship. Now, Thompson III would have a chance to experience his own conference final with a win. Jeff Green dropped 30 points on the Fighting Irish and the Hoyas needed every point as Notre Dame matched them shot-for-shot. Down the stretch, Georgetown built a seven-point lead then watched it evaporate as the Irish went on a 9-0 run. Tied at 82-82 with 40 seconds left, the Hoyas worked the clock down to 20 seconds —15 on the shot clock— before making their move. Sapp swung it to Ewing, Jr., whose bounce pass got the ball to Green in the post. Green muscled his way into the lane and hoped his prayer of a jump hook would sneak into the basket for the go-ahead layup.

“Pat just threw it down and I went into my move and they fouled me and I got the lucky roll,” Green said. “I just put it up there and tried to get it on the rim and it went in. It was a lucky shot.”

The Hoyas parlayed that lucky bounce into another, as Russell Carter got Green in the air and dribbled past him to take a wide-open jumper from the free-throw line. With no one around, he let it fly as the game clock ticked within five seconds and the spectators clad in blue and gray —including not only every Hoya fan in the arena but also the five players on the court—could only influence the ball mentally and hope for a miss. The ball bounced Georgetown’s way once more as Carter’s shot rimmed out. With only seconds remaining, Jon Wallace came out of the scrum with the rebound and threw the ball into the air as the clock expired. Georgetown was in the Big East final.  

Facing off against Pittsburgh in their third matchup of the season, hope was unnecessary. The Hoyas trailed just once— Mike Cook’s layup to give the Panthers a 2-0 lead—as Jeff Green led the way with 21 points and Roy Hibbert poured in 18 of his own. Georgetown’s sparkling shooting (over 50 percent for the game) and their smothering defense (Pittsburgh shot a putrid 26 percent from the field) was something at which the opposing coach could only marvel.

“They really beat us in every aspect of the game, and I can’t say enough about how well they played,” Pittsburgh coach Jamie Dixon said. Georgetown’s 15-2 run midway through the first half essentially ended matters, and Thompson III cleared the bench for the final minutes of the game to get everyone a chance to get on the Madison Square Garden hardwood. With their famous fathers sitting just a few rows behind them, Thompson III and Ewing, Jr.—along with the rest of the 2006-07 Hoyas—established their place in Big East history. After 18 years, Georgetown was back on top of the Big East with a 65-42 pelting of the Panthers. As the Georgetown faithful in attendance chanted for “Six More Wins!” to their Hoya players, they could only hope the momentum of a Big East tournament victory would quell any sort of fatigue from three games in three days. 

To start the NCAA Tournament, any fears of lethargy were assuaged as the Hoyas played well in their two opening weekend games. As the two-seed in the East region, their matchup against the 15-seed Belmont was merely a formality (The Florida Gulf Coast debacle was still six years away). Jessie Sapp scored a season-high 20 points to lead Georgetown in an 80-55 rout after falling behind 11-4 to open the game. Their second game of the weekend, against the seven-seed Boston College Eagles, was a much tougher task. Boston College, which is now in the ACC, used to be a member of the Big East—and they played like it. 

“That was a Big East game—physical, very physical,” Green said. No sequence encapsulated that physicality better than Georgetown’s post play with about eight minutes left in the game. It started when Hibbert missed a hook shot short, then fought through three Eagles to gather the loose ball—ripping it away from Jared Dudley in the process—before slamming it home with his left hand. Another missed Hibbert shot on the ensuing Georgetown possession led to a put-back slam by Jeff Green, who elevated high above the weak box out and nearly jumped over the poor Boston College poster-victim. After Jessie Sapp and Jared Dudley nearly came to blows fighting for a rebound—they settled for a double-technical—Hibbert’s layup on the other end resulted in a foul and a chance at a three-point play. The sequence reached its climax when Boston College pushed in transition for a seemingly easy layup and Hibbert came out of nowhere to send the ball into the second row. The block seemed to invigorate the Hoyas, as they never trailed the rest of the way and left their second-round matchup with a 62-55 win in a classic Big East low-scoring slugfest of a game. 

The second weekend was tougher. Hope was now of the essence, even though their Sweet 16 opponent was the sixth-seed Vanderbilt Commodores that Georgetown had beaten earlier in the season. Vanderbilt was on borrowed time, having survived a frenetic finish for a double-overtime upset victory against three-seed Washington State. To open the game, Vanderbilt played as if there was no pressure. They were not scared of this Hoya team that had beaten them by 16 all those months ago. In fact, it was the Hoyas who looked like the deer in the headlights. The Commodores staked themselves to a 32-24 lead at halftime, with Jessie Sapp (finished 2-10 shooting) and Jon Wallace (3-8) struggling to make plays while Dan Cage and SEC Player of the Year Derrick Byars made tough baskets in the paint. But halftime helped the Hoyas and clutch shooting from DaJuan Summers right out of the gates helped cut the lead to two right as the second half started. Neither team led by more than four points in the final 17 minutes, which featured eight lead changes and four ties. It seemed like Georgetown’s season was over when, with four minutes left, Roy Hibbert picked up his fifth foul contesting Byars’ three-point shot. The shot missed, but the whistle blew and Byars headed to the line while Hibbert headed to the bench—leaving Jeff Green to carry the burden of the offense. 

“With Roy absent, I had to step up,” Green said in the postgame press conference. “He is a big target down there. I had to take his place, get those rebounds he was able to get and do other things.”

When Georgetown found themselves down a point with only a few seconds left on the clock, Green stepped up when his teammates needed him the most. Off the inbounds pass, he received the ball from Jessie Sapp just inside the three-point line with eight seconds to go and went to work. Green faked a pass, took two dribbles, and fumbled the ball when he got double-teamed. He snatched the ball and recovered, but with nowhere to dribble, he went to his turnaround move, ducked under the double team and launched a prayer of a shot between four outstretched arms. His lob magically managed to find its way off the backboard and into the basket, and with 2.5 seconds to go, Georgetown had a 66-65 lead. Vanderbilt never relented all game, though—and they were not going to start now. Dan Cage got the inbound pass into Alex Gordon, who scrambled up court with the ball in hand. Sapp picked him up at half-court and Green came over to close out as Gordon elevated to try and pull out a miracle. Six-tenths of a second left, from about 30 feet out… Blocked. Ballgame. Chills. Georgetown was into the Elite Eight. 

Hope was a friend for Georgetown when they entered their regional final matchup with top-seeded North Carolina. It was the first game of the tournament where Georgetown was not the better team. North Carolina was ranked fourth overall in the country and had future NBA players all over the court. Tyler Hansbrough. Danny Green. Brandan Wright. Wayne Ellington. Ty Lawson. And despite struggling for the first ten minutes of the game, the Tar Heels proved as much, outscoring Georgetown 26-20 to enter the half up eight.

Out of the half, Georgetown cut it to three, and hope crept up once again. Carolina tried to crush that hope with a 10-2 run to build an 11-point lead, but it took only 40 seconds before a Jeff Green dunk off a perfect feed from Ewing, Jr. brought the East Rutherford crowd to its feet and cut the Tar Heel lead to two possessions. The Hoyas kept taking every shot on the chin and somehow managed to stay in the game with Carolina. When they got up 75-65 with 6:02 to go, North Carolina probably felt confident in their chances to advance back to the Final Four and put another stake through the hearts of Georgetown fans who remembered the 1982 national championship game. But looking across the court at the Hoyas, clad in their blue jerseys for the first time all tournament, the Tar Heels should have known a storm of blue and gray was coming.

It started with Jeff Green’s free throws. Down to nine. A stop on the other end, and then Sapp nailed a tough layup in traffic. Down to seven. North Carolina’s Wayne Ellington launched a three-pointer that was well off the mark, and Jeff Green made him pay with a jump hook in the paint on the ensuing possession. Down to five. “Georgetown really getting stingy now,” announced color commentator Billy Packers as UNC guard Ty Lawson’s three clanged off the rim; Roy Hibbert made it a one-possession game when he lost his defender on a spin move and finished with an emphatic dunk. Down to three. Two Tar Heel free throws pushed it back to five, but Jon Wallace knocked down two of his own to keep it at three with just over three minutes left. The hope was back. Another missed three from Carolina, and Green found Ewing, Jr. open on a lob pass for an uncontested layup. Down to one. Both teams traded points—North Carolina through free throws, Georgetown through a second Sapp layup. But on the ensuing possession, for the first time in over eight minutes, North Carolina managed a bucket; Tyler Hansbrough’s layup through the double-team gave the Tar Heels an 81-78 lead. Both teams missed shots on their following possessions, with Jeff Green’s floater bouncing harmlessly off the rim and Hansbrough’s fadeaway jumper as the shot clock expired missing badly. With 45 seconds left, the Hoyas were down three with the season on the line as Jon Wallace dribbled up the court before passing to Sapp on the left wing. The tension in the arena was palpable. Hands clasped together in prayer, fans looked to the heavens for just a second before their gaze returned to the action. They could not influence what happened next. Hope was all they had. 

“A three to tie, they don’t need it now,” lead commentator Jim Nantz said of the Hoyas as Jon Wallace received the ball back from Sapp and set his feet to launch a shot from behind the arc. “But they’ll go for it anyway.”

Georgetown was not a three-point shooting team. Their Princeton-style offense emphasized constant motion and getting high-percentage looks at the rim. The team, with 7’2” Roy Hibbert at center, was built for it. They attempted about 17 three-pointers per game that season—which ranked 227th in the country—but Wallace averaged 49 percent from three, so if you needed someone to hit the big jumper from deep, he would be your guy. With a sliver of space off thanks to a Roy Hibbert screen, Wallace took a chance and let a shot off from behind the three-point line. The ball hung in the air for nearly three seconds, arcing through the sky as the arena fell quiet. It rattled in. Down to zero. Even with the entire arena exploding with excitement, Georgetown had to lock in defensively. Out of the timeout, Carolina ran a set that got Ellington free for an open jumper from the wing right before the buzzer. As had been the case with the eight of their last nine shots, it clanged off the rim. Ewing, Jr. grabbed the rebound, and the game headed to overtime. From there, Georgetown exploded for 14 straight points, leaving UNC players wide-eyed with their hands on their hips. A 96-84 victory sent the Hoyas to the Final Four and John Thompson III led a cheer for the crowd still in attendance. 

“We are!” he boomed.

“Georgetown!” the fans responded.

“We are!”

“Georgetown!”

“We are!”

“Georgetown!”

As if anyone needed a reminder.

On the last day of March, the Hoyas matched up against an Ohio State team that had a future NBA star (Mike Conley, Jr.) and one of the biggest “What-Ifs”’ in NBA history in Greg Oden (who never reached his potential due to debilitating injuries). The much-anticipated matchup was between the big men, Oden and Hibbert, but it was not to be. Not even three minutes into the game, Oden walked to the bench disheartened after two quick fouls and stayed there for most of the first half. Hibbert didn’t fare much better, as he was limited to 24 minutes with foul troubles of his own. He was excellent on the court, scoring 19 points and grabbing six boards, but too much time as a spectator gave Ohio State a chance to dominate. The Buckeyes took advantage with Conley scoring 15 and limiting the Hoyas’ bench to zero points. Not a single bucket. And yet, the Hoyas were still in it, down 51-44 with six minutes to play. With just under three minutes left, Georgetown had cut the lead to 4 points, and it felt like this game would be another one of Georgetown’s close calls as hope would win out in the end. But on the last day of March, it wasn’t meant to be. Jeff Green was whistled for a foul, his third, with 2:32 remaining. Greg Oden’s jumper from just inside the free-throw line bounced off the back iron and managed to roll into the hoop on the following possession, and Georgetown never threatened again. Hope could not save Georgetown anymore. The season was over. 

There is a famous Ecclesiastes quote about his scorn for human achievement. “I reflected on everything that is accomplished by man on earth, and I concluded: Everything he has accomplished is futile — like chasing the wind.”

Sure, these moments do not last forever and record books of the 2006-07 season will always conclude with a big red L no matter how far the Hoyas made it that year. But if we cannot celebrate achievements, then what is there to celebrate at all? The last two weeks of that season exist in the memories of that generation of Hoya fans as their greatest moment can now only be reviewed through grainy YouTube footage and a collection of archived ESPN articles. Even through 480 pixels, you can understand the sentiment—the blue and gray uniforms, heart-racing wins, a final heartbreaking loss, and the celebration of a job well done in front of Healy Hall. 

As I pen this article fifteen years later, I am always struck by the excitement that March Madness generates. Players become legends for winning a couple of games and teams hang banners for making it past a certain checkpoint. Hope towers above all as the eleventh player on the court. Everyone in the arena tries to influence it in so many ways. Coaches try to tamp it down and keep focus. Underdogs try to sustain it. Fans desperately cling to it. Watching the old videos, I still hope Green doesn’t get called for that offensive foul, or that Oden’s shot doesn’t take a lucky bounce. But it is outside our control. 

The 2022 Final Four in New Orleans is here right now with visions of success top of mind for every fan—as it should be. It’s thrilling to not know how the story ends. And it’s fun to have hope.



More: , , , ,


Read More


Subscribe
Notify of
guest
1 Comment
Oldest
Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Colin

Thanks for the trip down memory lane Nicholas! I was a freshman at the time, and it was one of the most magical parts of my years at Georgetown.