John Thompson III's grin said it all.
Typically expressionless regardless of the result, the Georgetown coach couldn't hold back the happy after the Hoyas rallied for a dramatic 74-73 win over Creighton.
"That was fun," he said gleefully at the start of his press conference not long after guard D'Vauntes Smith-Rivera's two free throws with 6.2 seconds left capped a 15-3 run over the 2:18.
Fun surely isn't what Thompson experienced the majority of the game. Arduous better represents the Hoyas' overall experience, certainly during a foul-plagued second half. Creighton controlled the boards and point guard Maurice Watson controlled the game just as he did in the Blue Jays' 79-66 win in Omaha on Jan. 5.
The Hoyas (13-8, 6-2) battled throughout, but effort didn't make for quality execution in a matchup of two of the four teams tied for second in the Big East. Several debatable whistles by the referees added more burden, as did trailing Creighton (14-7, 5-3) 70-59 with 2:18 remaining. That's when effort turned to desperation and Georgetown turned the game.
“Georgetown made some plays down the stretch," Creighton coach Greg McDermott said. "It felt like we dominated the game for the most part, for 37 minutes and we didn’t execute very well late."
The Hoyas labored shooting from distance in Saturday's non-conference at Connecticut, a trend that continued with a 6 of 21 (28.6 percent) performance against Creighton. Yet other than Marcus Derrickson's 3-pointer that started the decisive surge, Georgetown attacked the paint late, its points coming from around the basket or the free throw line.
Defensively the Hoyas couldn't slow down Watson, who veered into triple-double territory with 16 points, eight rebounds and seven assists. Yet he also committed six turnovers including one near midcourt against pressure from Kaleb Johnson that the Hoyas freshman converted into a layup.
"We were in scramble [mode]," Johnson said. "We knew this was a big game and we needed a win."
The frenzied defensive effort forced two Creighton turnovers in the 95 seconds plus a wild miss in the final moments.
"There was a lot of adversity coming from a lot of different angles throughout the game and I liked the way we kept fighting and kept plugging," Thompson said. "Every single person made a play, a winning play, to help us win this game. Every single person made a play and that’s how we have to be."
For four years, the coach has liked the way his senior guard handles pressure. Smith-Rivera scored seven of his 19 points in the final 92 seconds including those ending pressure-packed free throws.
"He makes plays," Thompson said. "I mean he’s one of the best in the country and if you’re coming down to the end, I’m going with him."
With the Hoyas trailing 73-72, Creighton's Khyri Thomas missed two free throws with 23 seconds left. Georgetown didn't have any more timeouts, which meant Thompson couldn't draw up a final play, so his quarterback directed traffic.
"He trusted me and I wanted to come through," Smith-Rivera said.
Creighton switched to a zone defense, but the 6-foot-2 guard maneuvered around multiple defenders off the dribble and into the lane where he drew contact plus Watson's fifth and final foul. With nothing at stake other than the game, maintaining a share of second place in the Big East and arguably Georgetown's hopes for an NCAA Tournament at-large bid, two game-winning free throws followed.
" I didn’t really think about it too much," Smith-Rivera said about the free throws. " I shoot every day."
Practice might make perfect, but dealing with pressure is learned only from experiencing those moments. With over two minutes left, the Hoyas were set to experience dread from their fifth home loss of the season. Then they found desperation mode and a win.
If they learn how to sustain that effort over the full 40 minutes starting with Saturday's meeting with No. 10 Providence, Tuesday won't be the last time Thompson flashes the happy grin this season.
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