Commentary

Hoyas have the poise to pull out close games

Originally Published: December 5, 2007
By Chris Low | ESPN.com

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. -- Richard Hendrix could see it in the faces of the Georgetown players.

The game hanging in the balance. A partisan Alabama crowd roaring. An upset brewing.

But the No. 4 Hoyas and their All-America center Roy Hibbert, looking very much like they'd been there and done that, would have none of it.

"They had a sense of poise that we have to gain as the season goes on," said Hendrix, who did nothing to dispel the growing sentiment around the SEC that he's the league's best player. "Even though they were down one with four minutes to go, they had a sense of poise. It looked like they weren't nervous."

Georgetown's 70-60 victory over Alabama on Wednesday night in the Big East/SEC Invitational at the Birmingham-Jefferson Civic Center wasn't nearly as easy as the final score suggests. It wasn't always pretty, either.

But say this about these Hoyas, at least a month into the season: They know how to finish a game.

They also know that the path back to a repeat Final Four appearance goes through Hibbert, their 7-foot-2 senior center whose impact on the game doesn't come close to being measured by mere statistics.

"Roy has a mark on his back. He knows that. I know that, and our team knows that we're not going to win unless Roy has the ball in his hands in the paint," said Georgetown coach John Thompson III, whose Hoyas improved to 6-0. "We trust him, and he trusts his teammates as to when to shoot it and when to pass it.

"Coming down the stretch there, we went in to him every time. And he made the right decisions on what to do, and that's how we're going to play this year."

Down 57-56 with 4 minutes, 10 seconds to play after Alabama's Mykal Riley buried his fourth 3-pointer of the game, Georgetown calmly reeled off a 14-3 run to win going away.

Hibbert scored only one field goal during that decisive run, but he was the focal point for the Hoyas. He whipped a pass to DaJuan Summers for a 3-pointer, saved a ball on an offensive rebound that led to two free throws by Summers and was a big reason the Crimson Tide was held to just one field goal during the final four minutes.

"They kept fresh bodies on me, but I just had to make sure I stayed composed and that we ran our offense," said Hibbert, who finished with 14 points, nine rebounds and four blocked shots.

It's his patience that makes him so good, said Alabama coach Mark Gottfried, who coached Hibbert this past summer in the Pan American Games.

"He's got a great basketball IQ," Gottfried said. "He lets the game come to him. He passes it so well and the way they utilize him -- getting him out of the low post at times and getting him in the high post -- that opens up the floor for him. He's a great player and is going to be a longtime pro."

[+] EnlargeJonathan Wallace
AP Photo/Butch DillJonathan Wallace is the outside shooter who can keep defenses from doubling down on Roy Hibbert in the post.

The chief adjustment for Hibbert this season is that more teams are swarming him now that Jeff Green is doing his thing in the NBA. But Hibberts' teammates certainly aren't complaining about all the open shots they're getting. Four of the Hoyas' five starters scored in double figures on Wednesday, led by Summers with 18 points.

"They've got enough pieces," Gottfried said. "They can make shots. They can go inside to Hibbert. They didn't get to the Final Four by accident. They earned it. They were there, and they're good."

Thompson said the Hoyas aren't so much learning how to play without Green as they are learning how to play together. He wasn't enamored with the team's defense on Wednesday, especially in the first half when the Crimson Tide streaked to a 35-33 halftime lead.

But the presence this team has shown during "winning time" thus far is difficult to dismiss for even the most discerning coach.

"This team is learning," Thompson said. "We slowly, methodically pull away, and if we stick with our stuff … we can wear people down the last few minutes of the game."

And sure, all the open looks Alabama got in the first half will resonate for a while with Thompson, whose club had not allowed more than 53 points in its first five games.

But make no mistake, the good will outweigh the bad.

"This team has had a couple of games regardless of the circumstances where we got to the end, got to the last five, six or seven minutes and were able to play well, able to execute at both ends of the floor," Thompson said. "If this game means we're growing in terms of understanding and not getting frantic and not getting nervous at crunch time, which we didn't tonight, that's good.

"We just kind of calmed each other down and methodically went about the last four minutes as we should. This team knows we can do that, and it's good for this group to start to get that feeling."

Hendrix, who finished with 17 points and nine rebounds for the Crimson Tide, was a bit more succinct.

"I guess that's why they're a Top 5 team," he said.

Chris Low is a college football and basketball writer for ESPN.com.

Chris Low | email

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