As the final Big East matchup between longtime rivals Syracuse and Georgetown was set to tip off Saturday afternoon, the emotion the game inspired was visible all throughout the Verizon Center.
One Georgetown fan waved a poster that read "Officially Closed" with checkmarks next to "Manley" and "Dome." Another brandished a sign with "If you can't beat 'em, go to the ACC" scrawled on it. And the Georgetown alumni group, the Stonewalls, unveiled a 52-foot soccer-style tifo banner featuring the slogan "Our hatred is eternal" with a picture of Jack the Bulldog slicing up Otto the Orange in the middle.
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Scenes like that illustrate why the euphoria of a 61-39 rout of Syracuse for Georgetown supporters had to come with at least twinge of sadness too.
On one hand, the Hoyas rebounded from Wednesday night's loss at Villanova, completed a season sweep of the Orange and captured at least a share of the Big East title. On the other hand, the Hoyas closed a chapter of a rivalry that has been one of the best in college basketball finest for the past four decades.
Georgetown coach John Thompson III was emotional when he spoke with an ESPN sideline reporter as his players high-fived and hugged one-another and a sea of Hoyas fans celebrated at mid-court following the final buzzer. Thompson acknowledged that the win "means a lot on many levels," yet also admitted he was sad that this would be the final time Georgetown and Syracuse would meet as league rivals.
"It's going to be missed," he said. "It's going to be deeply missed."
That feeling was surely mutual on both sidelines, but at least Georgetown can take pride that it's ending the Big East portion of the rivalry as clearly the superior team.
Syracuse, expected to vie with Louisville for the Big East championship before the season, has failed to live up to expectations. Georgetown, once thought to be a cut below the Big East's best teams, has exceeded them.
Despite the loss of forwards Hollis Thompson and Henry Sims after last season and the suspension of third-leading scorer Greg Whittington, Georgetown (24-5, 14-4) has flourished in Big East play. The Hoyas remain in contention for a top-two seed in the NCAA tournament thanks to an elite defense, Otto Porter's emergence as a national player of the year candidate and Markel Starks and D'Vauntes Smith-Rivera developing into capable complementary players.
When Georgetown beat Syracuse at the Carrier Dome last month, the Hoyas did it by relying on Porter to carry the offense, keeping the Orange out of transition and forcing them to make contested shots from the perimeter. The defensive plan again was the same on Saturday, but the offensive formula was completely different.
With Syracuse collapsing on Porter in the high post of its zone and forcing someone else to score, Starks, Smith-Rivera and fellow guard Jabril Trawick did just that. The trio combined for 45 of Georgetown's 61 points and sank nine 3-pointers, helping make up for Porter scoring just two first-half points and finishing with only seven field goal attempts.
Georgetown didn't need a brilliant game from Porter because of the way it defended -- and the way Syracuse shot from the perimeter. An offensively inept Syracuse team that has now lost four of its past five games shot just 32.6 percent from the field and missed all but one of the 11 threes it attempted.
Michael Carter-Williams scored an efficient 17 points, but he got little help from any of his teammates. Ice-cold Brandon Triche scored two points on 1 of 9 shooting and James Southerland missed all seven of his field goal attempts, hardly a confidence-inspiring performance on the eve of the Big East tournament.
And with that, the two programs will go in separate directions, Syracuse to the ACC and Georgetown to the new-look Big East.
Hopefully the rivalry will continue in some form, preferably as an annual non-conference showdown. For now, bragging rights belong to Georgetown for closing out the Big East portion of the rivalry with a season sweep of Syracuse and celebrating a conference title at the Orange's expense.
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