After Georgetown’s lopsided loss to No. 6 Villanova last Saturday, Head Coach John Thompson III had a message for his team as it travelled back to the Hilltop.
“Something our guys needed to hear,” Thompson said earlier this week in a tone that implied he wasn’t talking about the Grammys.
Regardless of the content, if the intent of Thompson’s speech was to light a fire under his team, he appears to have succeeded. Georgetown (16-8, 8-5 Big East) overcame an up-and-down first half to pull away in the second period to down Seton Hall (15-9, 5-7 Big East) by a final of 86-67 on Tuesday night.
The Hoyas entered the night in search of a much-needed victory after losing three of their previous four contests and dropping out of the national polls for the first time in two weeks. Lethargic starts were a reoccurring theme in Georgetown’s recent losses, and it was clear from the opening tip that the Hoyas meant to change that.
With crisp ball movement on offense and active hands on defense, Georgetown jumped out to a 27-7 lead in the first 8:30 of the game. Junior guard D’Vauntes Smith-Rivera, usually noted for his scoring ability, tallied three steals in that span, part of six turnovers that the Hoyas forced leading to 15 points during the run.
“I think we had a much better start,” Thompson said. “We made some shots early, which led to good defense early.”
Try as Georgetown might, Seton Hall would not go away easily. Squarely on the NCAA tournament bubble and arguably in need of a win more than the Hoyas, the Pirates rallied with a 22-6 run of their own to cut Georgetown’s lead to four with 5:17 to play in the half.
Although offensive droughts from Georgetown have sparked several costly runs for opposing teams this season, this one was mainly due to lackadaisical defense. Seton Hall scored on 10-of-12 possessions and, more importantly, managed to draw several fouls in the process.
With 8:44 to play in the half, senior forward Mikael Hopkins picked up his third personal foul, as did senior center Joshua Smith a little more than four minutes later. After junior center Bradley Hayes looked uncomfortable in his few minutes off the bench, both Smith and Hopkins were reinserted into the game before the half, where Georgetown led 43-38.
The Hoyas switched to a zone defense out of the locker room, presumably to prevent fouls on Smith and Hopkins, but the change in defensive strategy did not work. Seton Hall hit uncontested three-pointers on its first two possessions of the period, the second of which tied the game at 44 apiece. Adding to Georgetown’s woes, Hopkins was whistled for his fourth personal foul at 17:37 and so was Smith at 15:49 with the Hoyas holding onto a delicate 51-44 lead.
To a team with less depth, the foul trouble could have been a deathblow, but for Georgetown, it turned into be a catalyst for change. Left with few options, Thompson inserted an unprecedented lineup of Smith-Rivera, senior forward Aaron Bowen, and freshman forwards Isaac Copeland, L.J. Peak and Paul White.
Copeland, who had scored the previous four points for Georgetown before Smith headed to the bench, responded immediately. The freshman made a put-back and three-pointer on consecutive possessions, followed shortly thereafter by a traditional three-point play and an assist on a White dunk that opened up the Hoyas’ lead to 61-48 with 11:38 remaining.
“It’s hard to stop good basketball teams, and they’re a great basketball team,” Seton Hall Head Coach Kevin Willard said.
The second double-digit lead of the night turned out to be far more secure than the first for Georgetown. Aided in part by Seton Hall making only 10-of-20 free throws in the second half, the Hoyas coasted through the last 10 minutes and picked up their third road win in their last four attempts.
Copeland, who replaced Hopkins in the starting lineup, finished with a career-high 20 points and eight rebounds.
“[Copeland] played like a man today,” Smith-Rivera, the Hoyas’ leading scorer with 23 points said. “That’s the way we need him to play for the remainder of the season.”
After a bus ride home that will surely be more pleasant than its last one, Georgetown will have a week to rest before welcoming St. John’s (15-8, 4-6 Big East) to Verizon Center next Tuesday.