There was one last game to go for the 1984 Georgetown Hoyas. One more win, and head coach John Thompson would have a national championship like none other. No wonder, he was on edge all that day.
“I remember he came into the locker room and he looked very nervous,” Patrick Ewing said, 30 years later. “I said, 'Coach, we’ve got this.' ”
Yes, they did. With Ewing controlling the middle against future NBA rival Akeem Olajuwon, the Hoyas rolled against Houston 84-75. Ewing had been right all along.
History was made that night in Seattle. Thompson became the first black coach to win the national championship.
Deliverance arrived that night. For two years, Georgetown basketball had been trying to have amnesia about 1982, when Michael Jordan’s jumper beat the Hoyas in the final seconds of the national title game.
Vindication was achieved that night. Thompson’s program was physical and aggressive and demanding of respect, and made no apologies for it. Some thought the Hoyas sullen and defensive. Or did Thompson just have them pursuing something with an impenetrable single-minded focus? Whichever, “he did it his way,” Ewing said.
So there were bound to be some critics.
“There wasn’t just some critics. There were a whole lot of critics,” Ewing corrected. “But there was nothing anybody could say. We were national champions. People talked about Hoya paranoia and all that stuff. We had shut everybody up by winning it.”
It ended with a hug, between a coach and a senior, both of whom had learned the hard way what it felt like to lose a national title game. Thompson on one side, and guard Fred Brown on the other. Brown infamously had passed to North Carolina’s James Worthy in the final seconds of that ’82 game -- a cruelly timed case of mistaken identity that will live as long as there are highlights. So this was an embrace to wipe out the bad memories.
“We lost as a team and we won as a team,” Ewing said. “I’m sure it meant a lot to Fred after what he went through … all the naysayers and all the people who had said the nasty things about him.”
The glorious season had also been a trying one, as the hardships of real life kept finding the Hoyas.
“We all grew up as a unit, and we grew up as individuals,” Ewing said, “My mom passed, Ralph Dalton’s mom passed, Coach Thompson’s mom passed and I think David Wingate’s mom passed, all in that year. So we faced some adversity, and I thought it brought us together.”
Georgetown used its renowned defense to put together a 29-3 record and take a No. 1 seed into the tournament -- but everything was nearly gone in one night. No. 9 seed SMU, slowing the pace in the pre-shot clock years, took the Hoyas to the wire. With the score tied 34-34 and eight seconds left, Georgetown’s Gene Smith had two free throws, and Ewing had an idea.
“Usually I would play in the back court,” he said. “But I told coach Thompson he should put me on the line in case Gene missed.”
Smith made the first free throw, but missed the second -- and Ewing was there for a tip-in basket and 37-34 lead. The rebound grew to enormous proportions when SMU scored at the buzzer for a 37-36 final.
No one would stay with the Hoyas again. Their defense was at full and ferocious power in the national semifinal against Kentucky, when the Wildcats started the second half with a 29-22 lead. It took them nearly 10 minutes to score another point.
By the time the game ended in a 53-40 Hoya victory, Kentucky had taken 33 shots in the second half and missed 30 of them. Coach Joe B. Hall said afterward it looked as if Georgetown had an electronic device on the rim, as a force field against Kentucky shots. It remains the lowest score for a team in the Final Four since 1949.
“We were able to just lock them down,” Ewing said. “We trapped them, we pressed them, we forced them into turnovers. We just played Hoya defense.”
Two nights later, they faced Houston, with the big-man showdown of Ewing versus Olajuwon the obvious focal point. “That wasn’t on my radar screen,” Ewing said.
No, this was all about Georgetown taking the last step as a program, never mind the opponent. Though Ewing said that during the game against Olajuwon, it was impossible not to “really feel his strength and quickness. This was a guy I’d be battling for years to come.”
But the tournament is such a fickle pastime. In 1984, Georgetown was a landmark champion. One year later, the Hoyas were landmark upset victims, beaten 66-64 in the championship game when Villanova missed one shot in the second half. The Kentucky shutdown was 12 months and a million miles in the past. “Still a bitter taste in my mouth,” Ewing said.
Combine that with Jordan’s dagger in 1982, and Ewing’s Hoyas are nearly as memorable for the way they fell, as the way they soared.
“I should have won three national championships,” Ewing said. “Unfortunately, we only came away with one, so I definitely cherish the one that I do have.”
Indeed, it was one to cherish, as a coach made history and a program grew to full maturity, in his image. “We came into college as boys and left as men,” Ewing said. “We learned, we fought, we had to develop relationships.”
And they did it their way.