In this new scaled-down version of the Big East, there still can be big stakes and high drama. Georgetown coach John Thompson III calls the tournament "a separate monster in itself." Thursday night, he and his team felt fortunate to stay out of its worst clutches.
The Hoyas, having been in danger of losing to 10th-seeded Creighton, were good enough when they had to be and held on for a 60-55 victory in a tournament quarterfinal. They prevailed this time over the "monster," with D'Vauntes Smith-Rivera serving as a beast down the stretch, scoring 12 of his team's final 15 points.
"We needed it," Thompson said, having seen the Hoyas recover from a four-point deficit in the final 2:50. "I've said it all year, most of the coaches have said it all year: Someone has to be No. 1. Someone has to be No. 10. But there's not much difference. Maybe [top-seeded] 'Nova is a little different, but everyone else, there's not much difference.
"You have to play, and you have to play well to win every night," he said.
As balanced as the league might be, it would have been embarrassing for No. 2 Georgetown (21-9), ranked 23rd in the nation, to lose to a team that is 14-19, a team it had beaten by 27 points in Omaha (Creighton's home) on Jan. 31.
That is what the Hoyas were staring at when Bluejays guard James Milliken seemed unstoppable for most of a 17-point night. But Georgetown switched to a zone late in the game. "They were getting too many easy looks against our man-to-man, and they were putting us in difficult situations," Thompson said.
On the other end, the favored team kept giving the ball to Smith-Rivera, the first-team all-conference guard who missed the final regular-season game with a knee injury and who finished with 25 points Thursday night. After Josh Smith put Georgetown ahead by a point, Smith-Rivera's basket with 59 seconds left gave the Hoyas a three-point lead, 56-53.
"I really just wanted to make a play. The guys were looking for me to make something happen," Smith-Rivera said.
Creighton still had a chance to tie, but Milliken threw the ball out of bounds with 18.9 seconds left. "Coach had told me to attack, and they opened the gap for me, and I attacked it," Milliken said. "I saw Austin [Chatman] at the last minute. I thought he was going to flare out to the corner."
After that, Smith-Rivera made two pairs of free throws and his team avoided the ignominy of being ousted by a double-digit seed, in either the Big East of NCAA, as it had done every year since 2008. "Last year, we went down in the first game to DePaul," Smith-Rivera said, recalling the first tournament of the new Big East era. "That game kind of played over and over again in our head."
This time, though, it didn't play out again on the court.