One year after turning down an invitation to the NIT, Georgetown is one win away from reaching the tournament’s championship game.
The Hoyas (18-14) will take on Minnesota (19-12) in the NIT semifinals at Madison Square Garden in a rematch of the 1993 championship game, which the Golden Gophers won.
Despite a 19-11 record last season, Georgetown was not selected for the NCAA tournament. The Hoyas were invited to the NIT, but refused because coach Craig Esherick did not want to play on the road and have his players miss classes.
“We couldn’t use our home court, the MCI Center, because it’s the site of the NCAA tournament’s first two rounds,” Esherick said. “Since we couldn’t have a home game we wanted to be playing closer to home to not miss class. After a while I said `Look, maybe we’re better off not doing it.”’
The refusal ended the school’s 27-year streak of postseason appearances.
Playing on the road wasn’t a concern this year as Georgetown won games at Tennessee, Providence, and North Carolina to earn a trip to New York.
The Hoyas are led by center Mike Sweetney, who averages 22.5 points and 10.4 rebounds per game. Junior guard Gerald Riley adds 14.3 points, and sophomore guard Tony Bethel contributes 10.9 points and a team-high 3.6 assists.
Sweetney had 26 points and 11 rebounds in 30 minutes in a 79-74 win over the Tar Heels in the quarterfinals last Wednesday.
“It’s pretty rough, going to other people’s home floors, especially here,” Sweetney said of the Smith Center, which drew 15,043. “Fans were heckling us and we had nobody on our side. We had nothing but ourselves.”
The win was the Hoyas’ fourth in five games since a loss to then-No. 16 Notre Dame in the regular-season finale. Georgetown beat Villanova in the first round of the Big East tournament, before losing to Final Four-bound Syracuse in the second round.
“Our record is not going to tell you this, but our team played well during the season,” Esherick said. “We didn’t play well for 40 minutes during the season.
“We were at the point during the season where we didn’t know how to win. I think we’ve learned how to win now. The important thing is to continue that for the next two games and the guys that come back next year can’t forget how to win.”
The Golden Gophers, making their 11th NIT appearance, are in the semifinals for the fourth time, and first under head coach Dan Monson.
Minnesota is coming off a 63-58 overtime win at Temple in the quarterfinals last Wednesday.
The game was tied 54-54 at the end of regulation, but the Gophers scored the first five points in overtime and never looked back.
Minnesota talked all season how much it didn’t want to be playing in the NIT, because that meant it would not be in the NCAA tournament. However, after winning three games to earn a trip to the semifinals, the Gophers have changed their minds.
“It’s a bonus for your younger guys,” Monson said Sunday morning before the Gophers practiced and departed for New York. “We’re not saying it’s the NCAA tournament, but it’s still a chance to play in the postseason.”
Sophomore Rick Rickert led Minnesota with 15 points and 13 rebounds against the Owls. He averaged team highs of 15.8 points and 6.4 rebounds this season. Maurice Hargrow adds 13.4 points, Michael Bauer 11.6 points and 5.0 rebounds, and Kevin Burleson averages a team-leading 4.8 assists.
Monson knows his team will have a tough time stopping Sweetney.
“I don’t think there’s any question he’s the best big man we’ve faced all year,” Monson said. “He’s got the whole package. Big, strong, great hands, and he moves well.”
Reserve center Jeff Hagen will have to help out, backing up starter Jerry Holman.
”(Sweetney) gets so many points off rebounds,” Hagen said. “We just want to limit his touches and try to keep him off the glass. He’s a more physical player than we’ve ever played against this year.”
The teams have split two all-time meetings. The Hoyas evened the series with a 78-60 win on Nov. 26, 2000 in the Hawaii Pacific Thanksgiving Tournament.
The winner will face either St. John’s or Texas Tech in the NIT championship game Thursday.