The game, the atmosphere and the rivalry all were as familiar and comfortable as a favorite old sweater. And so what if the level of play was sometimes as garish as the garment Lou Carnesecca once wore and John Thompson sheepishly copied? It was Georgetown-St. John’s, Patrick Ewing-Chris Mullin, yesterday-today.
“It was a surreal and unique circumstance,” said Mullin, the St. John’s icon-turned-coach.
“I think it’s what dreams are made of,” said Ewing, the Georgetown icon-turned-coach, whose team had the better part of the dream, finishing with a 69-66 victory in a contest between programs trying to regain their footing after all these years.
A three-point shot by Jessie Govan of Queens Village with 25 seconds left and a missed three-pointer by Shamorie Ponds at the very end proved the difference between teams that don’t have respective superstars like Mullin and Ewing. Truth be told, each was desperate for a victory. St. John’s left feeling the same way, now 0-5 in the Big East (10-7 overall). Georgetown is 2-3 in the conference (12-4 overall) despite having committed 22 turnovers.
“The game, just like the old times, it was a knockdown, drag-out fight. It was one of those ugly games, but I was just happy we got the win,” Ewing said after Govan finished with 18 points and 13 rebounds and Marcus Derrickson finished with 17 points.
Both coaches reflected on the fact that they were bitter rivals as college players, when their teams were both among the very best in the country, and became good friends as two-time Olympic gold-medal teammates. They remember the infamous “Sweater Game” of 1985, when Carnesecca wore his infamous and not so stylish lucky sweater and Thompson, his counterpart coach, opened his jacket to reveal one pretty much just like it.
Before the game attended by 9,406 at Madison Square Garden Tuesday night, Ewing joked with Mullin about never having seen him wear a tie before. “He told me he wore it in my honor,” the Georgetown coach said. “That was his ‘sweater.’ ”
Of course, the occasion was doubly deep for Ewing. Not only was it an echo of the glory years of the Big East, it was his first game as a head coach back at the Garden, his old dominion. He restored the entire Knicks franchise during his years as a player here and it meant a lot, after years of paying his dues as an assistant coach in the NBA, to return in his former home in his new role.
“I’ve had a lot of great memories here, I’ve had a lot of ups and downs,” Ewing said, adding that he did not have to remind his players — born long after his college days — about the back story. “They already know what playing here means to me.”
Both squads are a long way from the efficiency of the good old days. The Hoyas shot only 33 percent from the floor, the Red Storm 37.7. In a stretch of more than four minutes in the second half, neither team scored. But it did get exciting at the end. St. John’s wiped out an eight-point deficit and tied it at 64 before Govan’s three-pointer. The Storm made a basket, the Hoyas two free throws before Ponds (17 points) missed just before the buzzer.
“We’re right there,” said Marvin Clark II, who had 15 points and seven rebounds for St. John’s. “We’ve got to figure out a way to get over the hump.”
Stranger things have happened. Just ask Mullin. He said that if someone had asked him 30 years ago what were the chances of this coaching matchup, “I would have said 100 percent ‘no.’ ”
Ewing said, “Now, it’s gone full circle. Now you have both of us coaching against each other. I’m from Jamaica, he’s from Brooklyn, and we both played a sport that we love, battled each other, became good friends, won two gold medals together. Now we’re battling each other again.”