EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. – They were going to overtime now, and those rattled, retreating North Carolina Tar Heels were slinking to the sideline when John Thompson III marched into his huddle. Those eyes were staring back at him, trying to hear him over the deafening din, and slowly, surely, a smile crawled across his lips.
"This is fun!" Thompson III blurted, and he grabbed his clipboard and went back to work on a Final Four berth that mere minutes earlier Sunday looked like a lost cause. His Hoyas never should have had such a shot Sunday to reach Atlanta, should've been down and out, but somehow they kept coming and coming and inspired an epic Carolina collapse at the Continental Airlines Arena.
Across the final, frantic minutes, Thompson III dabbed his baby bald head with the white towel that his old man used to toss over his shoulder, forever staying cool in this frantic, fabulous comeback victory. Ultimately, the Tar Heels stiffened in the final 15 minutes of regulation and overtime of this 96-84 Hoyas victory, missing 22 of 23 shots to let Georgetown back into the East Regional final, back into the Final Four, for the first time since 1985.
As badly as Roy Williams' Heels lost composure, couldn't function free of the fast break, Thompson III used this stunning victory to stamp himself as a coaching star. In just his third season at Georgetown, he has restored the Hoyas to Big East champions and Final Four pedigree. He doesn't have the best players, but he sure has the best team.
As much as those '80s Hoyas were a ferocious reflection of John Thompson's fire and ferocity, these Hoyas are a reflection of Thompson III's precision and methodology.
For all the social activism credited to his father as Georgetown coach, John III has come along in a different time, a different place, and made his contributions in a far more subtle yet powerful way. He runs the Princeton offense, something that Patrick Ewing Jr. admitted to me is a system that most associate for use with "white players" and "not athletes." Even when the Hoyas teetered on the cusp of getting blown out by the deeper, more talented Tar Heels Sunday, the Hoyas never lost faith in the coach's system.
The genius is in the details with Thompson III, who started the game with a backdoor layup and had his players running that offense with complete commitment even when they were falling further and further behind. When the inclination might have been to break away and start freelancing, they never dared.
There was a belief out there that it wouldn't work in the Big East, when for goodness sakes, it worked in the NBA with the New Jersey Nets and Sacramento Kings. The godfather of the offense, old Princeton guru Pete Carril, wore a Georgetown baseball cap on the floor next to his old player and assistant, Thompson III. The Hoyas coach is much more influenced by Carril than his father.
"He's made so many improvements in that offense, it's no longer the Princeton offense," Carril said. "It's the Georgetown offense now."
Finally, there is a young black coach whom the commentators aren't celebrating as merely a "motivator" or a "good communicator" but as a tactical wizard. Plenty of those came before him but never were afforded those labels. Thompson III has gone a long way toward shattering stereotypes.
Near Carril after the game, Thompson III was on the radio with his father, who had been broadcasting the game courtside. In the relentless barrage of comparisons and questions about his father, the son never lost his patience, never his composure. He's so sure of him himself, so complete as a coach, there have been no frayed insecurities to complicate matters.
"This is the greatest thing to happen to me," John Thompson Jr. said courtside. "He let me share in his life. He wasn't threatened at all. He made me comfortable."
Thompson III helped nurse his wife, Monica, back when she was stricken with breast cancer two years ago. His father admitted that Thompson III has been much more of a family man than John Thompson Jr. ever was in his glory days. Patrick Ewing was celebrating in the stands, and it was ironic that these Hoyas have been cast as something significantly less tough than the Hoya Paranoia of the '80s. They aren't as intimidating, nor as antagonistic, but tough?
"Coach Thompson, with his size, his mannerisms, his person, he was able to intimidate people," Williams said. "But young John is not his dad. Toughness is not just hard fouls and being willing to fight people. Toughness is being 10 down and continuing to do what your coach wants you to do."
Carolina was far more talented, far deeper, and replete with several NBA first-round picks. The Hoyas' best player, Jeff Green, isn't going to be a star in the pros, but perhaps a poor man's Shane Battier. Roy Hibbert has developed into a fine college player, but Tyler Hansbrough was a first-team All-American, and freshman Brandan Wright has a chance to be the third pick in this draft behind Greg Oden and Kevin Durant. The Carolina guards had it all over Georgetown's, too.
Have you ever heard of a team in the Final Eight playing 12 players in the first half of a game, having the conviction to go that deep into its bench? Carolina did, and Roy Hibbert and Ewing Jr. had four fouls, and the Tar Heels still couldn't close out Georgetown. Rest assured, if Williams hadn't won that national title with Matt Doherty's players two years ago, this unspeakable collapse would have him under siege.
"That's a heck of a team he beat there," Carril marveled. "All of that talent and depth that UNC had, it's just splendid what [Thompson III] did. He's made his mark."
Twenty-five years later, there was no Michael Jordan to bail out the Tar Heels in the final moments against the Hoyas, no Fred Brown to pass them the ball. This time, the final shot of regulation bounced off the rim into the hands, ironically, of Patrick Ewing Jr., and soon the Hoyas would rip off 14 straight points in overtime.
Yes, Thompson III was right. This was fun. Finally, as Carolina rolled over in the overtime, the Georgetown coach turned to his assistant coaches and blurted, "Can you believe this?" No one could've seen this coming Sunday.
After Thompson III marched across the court for a long hug with his father, he found himself on the podium with his players accepting the East Regional trophy. Forever calm and composed, an impeccable Wall Street CEO edge to his style, the coach of the Georgetown Hoyas stepped out of character, grabbed the microphone and screamed to the Hoya fans.
"We are …" he yelled.
"George-town," they screamed back.
"WE ARE," John Thompson III bellowed once more.