There was nothing to suggest at halftime that Georgetown would be involved in a competitive game, much less a Big East classic. The Hoyas, through the first 20 minutes, played about as efficient a half of basketball as one could ask against a blood rival in the league tournament. The Hoyas led by 15 at intermission. They shot 59 percent in the first half. They passed so intelligently and with such precision it resulted in 11 assists on 13 baskets. It was basketball surgery that Georgetown performed on Syracuse those first 20 minutes.
"We were in a bad position at halftime — as bad a position as you could be in," Syracuse Coach Jim Boeheim said.
And suddenly, because of a determined senior guard who should have been in bed instead of on the court, Syracuse wasn't in such a bad position at all. Gerry McNamara, the kid Carmelo Anthony left behind after that NCAA championship three years ago, looked at the scoreboard and decided he wasn't that tired yet. After beating Cincinnati with a half-second left on Wednesday to keep Syracuse alive for NCAA tournament play, and after beating top-ranked Connecticut on Thursday to secure an at-large spot in the NCAAs, McNamara had just enough left Friday to beat Georgetown in one of the improbable comebacks in Big East history.
In the 26 years this league has staged a tournament, 16 games have gone to overtime.
Not once had the winner of an overtime game won the next game.
The kid scored 15 of his 17 points in the second half, including three on the jumper which got Syracuse within 57-56 with 48 seconds left. McNamara fed Eric Devendorf for the go-ahead points with 9.3 seconds to play. He forced guard Ashanti Cook into a traveling violation on Georgetown's last chance to win the game.
Boeheim knew entering the third game in three days the kid was out of gas and used him brilliantly the first half, playing him only 12 minutes.
Still, Georgetown was so respectful of McNamara that Coach John Thompson III called timeout with 9 minutes 36 seconds to play after his team's made basket for the specific purpose of warning his players, once again, about McNamara.
"I wanted to make sure," Thompson said, "that everybody's energy was on him — and it didn't matter. He's a great player, and he willed them to win tonight. He put them on his back, and he willed them to win. He's a senior who has decided he doesn't want to lose — that's the long and short of it."
Asked about feeling so poorly yet playing so well, McNamara said: "We're down 15. How I was feeling didn't matter. The purpose of coming here is to win it. I'm just proud."
Though Syracuse has one game left, the Big East championship game Saturday night, Boeheim didn't hesitate to say this is the most amazing tournament run he has ever been a part of here. Folks in and around D.C. may put it in the context of Gary Williams's Maryland team winning the ACC tournament in 2004, two years after winning the NCAA championship. Maryland entered that event uncertain of whether it would get into the NCAA tournament. Syracuse needed something similar this season; the Orange had to win two games here to reach the Big Dance.
Even with one game remaining here, McNamara is the MVP of this tournament, and there's no vote necessary. Already, even if he fails to score Saturday , his three-game run has put him in the company of Patrick Ewing, Chris Mullin, Reggie Williams, Walter Berry, Pearl Washington, Ray Allen and Kerry Kittles, the men with the best of the best performances in Big East history.
While it's true that Georgetown grew incomprehensibly tentative in the second half on offense — the Syracuse coaches and players remarked afterward how surprising that was — and while the Hoyas missed 9 of 17 free throws, the game will be remembered as McNamara's encore — or one of his encores if he does it again Saturday . And at this point, only a fool would rule it out of the question.
And to think that on Thursday, after Syracuse beat Cincinnati, Boeheim felt the need to go on a profanity-laced tirade to defend McNamara against some unnamed assistant college coaches who had called McNamara "overrated" in a published story.
"If we keep playing all these people," Boeheim said, "we'll either find that assistant coach — or find out he's already at home."
Boeheim deserves credit for having the restraint to not put McNamara in the game earlier.
"Without Gerry McNamara," he said earlier in the week, "we wouldn't have won 10 games this season. Not 10. When he's not on the court, our other guys are looking around thinking, 'Who's gonna get the ball up the court?' We can't get the ball up the court without him. They have no clue of where to go on offense, and can't get organized on defense without him out there."
Yet, Boeheim knew the kid had been taking ice baths for two days, knew he had an injured groin, knew he had twisted his ankle in the last minute against U-Conn. The trainer told Boeheim that McNamara was 50 percent healthy.
"And I said, 'Yeah, he'll be there,' " Boeheim said. "He's a big-game player, a big-shot maker. If he had doesn't make that shot [to beat Cincinnati] we're not in the [NCAA] tournament, and rightfully so."
Georgetown didn't have that problem. What the Hoyas have to figure out is how to play close to the way they did in the first half for, oh, 40 minutes.
They got inside the Syracuse zone, which is only one of the best in the country. The only times Georgetown has played a better first half this season was against Duke and West Virginia. Boeheim marveled at what Thompson has done in such a short time. Thompson was left to wonder why his team became, to use his words, "a little stagnant."
For those who came to the Garden thinking Syracuse was out of gas (count me as one of them), not many expected to see vintage Syracuse vs. Georgetown.
"It's still a big game," Boeheim said. "It always has been and always will be."