Clark put his hands on his hips and looked away, and the kids from North Carolina State whooped and hollered at the end of a flat-out scrum. They are among the 16 teams left in the NCAA tournament, and Georgetown is headed back to the District for the end of spring semester and nothing more.
Wolfpack 66, Washington’s Last Hope in the Tournament 63.
Oh, we tried to claim Norfolk State the way we claimed VCU a year ago, and Virginia had a nice little season until the Cavaliers ran out of bodies. But let’s be honest: When the Hoyas, Maryland, George Mason, American or George Washington aren’t picked for a bid or aren’t moving on, it’s not the same.
Georgetown was 2012’s lone true threat, and that didn’t last past the first weekend.
You want to grill Otto Porter for not taking a kick-out three-pointer with the Hoyas down two and less than 20 seconds left, for dribbling in and taking a much tougher, well-defended shot. You want to knock Sims for his four points on 1-of-3 shooting in his final foul-plagued game, the way you want to knock Clark for shooting 3 of 11 from the floor and the entire team for giving up 17 offensive rebounds to the Wolfpack.
But then you walk in the locker room and college kids are smudging away tears, trying to act like they weren’t bawling their eyes out after the toughest loss of many of their lives.
And you step back a bit and listen.
“I’ve never been more proud of any group I’ve ever been associated with,” Hoyas Coach John Thompson III said. “It’s cliche, I know, but this is a team I’ll cherish, I’ll never forget.
“It’s hard to express in words, but this is a team I really wanted to win. Now, when you say that, it sounds like I didn’t want other teams I’ve coached to win as much. But that’s not it. I just really wanted this group to win.”
It’s an understandable sentiment, because no other Georgetown team coached by JTIII since the 2007 Final Four run was picked to finish 10th in the Big East. With 10 underclassmen, including six freshmen, these Hoyas were believed to be too green to get out of their own way.
Before the season started, they found themselves in the middle of an international incident during a trip abroad, swapping punches with a Chinese professional team during a “Friendship Tour.” They closed ranks on their way back to the team bus that night, fearful for their safety, knowing they had only one another.
And that team incredibly grew up on the fly, buying in to the principles of their coach’s patterned offense. Sims showed he has some tools in his box and turned into a very good big man. Porter emerged, first as a spark off the bench and then as a starter at 18. And they all got after it defensively, putting up an electric fence around the perimeter, gang-rebounding when the ball went up.
Suddenly, that young, inexperienced team earned a No. 3 seed in the NCAA tournament in what was easily the best coaching job of JTIII’s career on the Hilltop.
Now it’s over. Another more-determined team clogged up the middle, made the Hoyas’ offense stall and ended their season. Over, as usual, before it actually felt like it began.
Asked if Georgetown overachieved, JTIII said, “It’s hard to say right now because I expected to be playing this week.”
That’s the killer right there. In what’s becoming another crapshoot of a tournament, N.C. State became the fourth straight double-digit seed to bounce the Hoyas from the tournament. It’s not the number that matters, it’s the ultimate understanding the Hoyas had the better team coming in and could not find a way to advance.
The game played out much like Georgetown’s Final Four loss to Ohio State in 2007. Two offensive-foul calls on Sims and two fouls on N.C. State’s biggest player, Richard Howell, negated a good inside matchup for much of the first half.
Without much rhythm or flow, the teams slugged it out early on until N.C. State turned it on with a 15-2 run before the end of the half to take a three-point halftime lead.
Late in the second half, the Hoyas finally had dug themselves out of a serious hole and were on the cusp of completing a wild comeback that would have began to move them into the company of some of Georgetown’s best teams ever.
But Clark rushed upcourt, squared, fired and missed.
“It hurts because this is the last time I’ll ever put on these shorts, this uniform, be with this group,” he said, lowering his head.
You want to tell the kid the old adage: “Don’t cry because it’s over. Smile because it happened.”
But on the last day of Georgetown’s season and the last day of Jason Clark’s career, it’s too early for that.
For Mike Wise’s previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/wise.