COLUMBUS, Ohio — An international incident made Georgetown a team.
What could have been a disparate collection of freshmen and upperclassmen, entitled stars and incoming newbies, has become a united squad as it prepares to meet North Carolina State on Sunday in a third round of the Midwest Regional.
A horrendous fight drew them closer.
"Having gone through it, it without a doubt brought this group together," coach John Thompson III said Saturday. "The realization that everybody's piece is important, that everyone — for us to have success, for us to succeed, for us to get out of here alive — everyone has to do their part."
It all started almost 7,000 miles from campus.
Georgetown played China's Bayi Rockets in an exhibition game in August that was supposed to be part of a goodwill tour. Instead, it turned ugly when a bench-clearing brawl broke out all over the court with more than 9 minutes left in the fourth quarter. The game was canceled with score tied at 64.
The Hoyas escaped despite chairs being thrown on the court, fans pelting them with bottles and opposing players chasing them.
Things changed for the Hoyas that day.
"That's definitely where it kicked off," said point guard Jason Clark. "Because having new players on this team, you didn't know what to expect. When you're first building a team, you have to find out if you can trust that person. And with everything that happened over there in China, after the whole brawl, we all understood that everybody had each other's back no matter what."
Third-seeded Georgetown (24-8), which starts players from all four classes and has six first-year players on the roster, clearly took the experience to heart. How nerve-racking is a two-point game in the final minutes at Louisville when you've had an angry mob on your tail? A free throw to clinch a win against Notre Dame is nothing compared to ducking an object thrown at your head.
"This group quickly learned that for us to have success, we're going to have to protect each other," said Thompson, whose team got past Belmont 74-59 in its first NCAA game. "For us to have success we're going to have to be ready, willing and able to fight for each other."
Then he hesitated before adding, "Now, hopefully, unlike then, it's more figuratively than literally."
The Hoyas, NCAA champions in 1984 under Thompson's dad, John Thompson Jr., will be tested in an entirely different way Sunday at Nationwide Arena. They are a tall and disciplined defensive team with four starters standing at least 6-foot-8. But they haven't been as good at the other end of the floor, and N.C. State can speed up the tempo.
"I feel like we've been able to show that we can get out, that we can play different types of ways," said center Henry Sims, who in the Hoyas' pass-and-cut offense has almost twice as many assists as any teammate. "We can slow down the game (or) we can play kind of fast."
The conventional wisdom also says that the Wolfpack want to get out and run. And if the pace falters, it favors the deliberate Hoyas, who favor the back cuts of the Princeton offense.
Coach Mark Gottfried doesn't believe that.
"When you get beat on a backdoor cut, sometimes we feel like that was an eight-point play," he said. "It's still just two. But sometimes that backdoor cut, it just hurts worse."
He says all those screens and cuts and passes won't change what the Wolfpack do on defense.
"We're going to do what we do every day," he said. "And we're not going to shut them out."
The 11th-seeded Wolfpack (23-12), who upset sixth-seeded San Diego State 79-65 on Friday, have helped revive a glittering tradition that includes NCAA titles in 1974 and 1983.
Leading scorer C.J. Leslie, who grew up not far from the N.C. State campus, said he was pleased to be a part of the program's rise after five years away from the NCAA tournament.
"To bring a program where it hasn't been in a while is very exciting," he said.
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