COLUMBUS, OH - MARCH 18: Henry Sims #14 of the Georgetown Hoyas is helped up by Jason Clark #21 after committing a foul against the North Carolina State Wolfpack in the first half during the third round of the 2012 NCAA Men's basketball tournament at Nationwide Arena on March 18, 2012 in Columbus, Ohio. (Photo by Jamie Sabau/Getty Images)
This year's Georgetown team surpassed preseason expectations, but the end result looked very familiar.
Another season of Georgetown basketball is in the books. Another season that ended earlier than expected. A fourth consecutive NCAA Tournament appearance ended because another opposing double-digit seed did not cede ground to the favored Hoyas.
That is the harsh reality following Sunday's 66-63 loss in the Round of 32 to North Carolina State. The 11th-seeded Wolfpack rallied from a 10-point deficit in the first half, took the lead before halftime and never relinquished it, try as the Hoyas might to get back in front.
Yet, this loss for this team in this season felt different, even if the result felt all too familiar.
By now, everyone inside and outside the program has played the what-if game. What if Henry Sims does not pick up two early fouls, what if Otto Porter sticks the short jumper in the closing seconds, what if Jason Clark's attempt a tying buzzer-beater turned into one dramatic, shining moment. At best, this exercise offers up a happy alternative world to occupy for a bit, a sports fan's safe haven where possibilities remain. Your time may vary as to how long you stay, but eventually, reality sets in.
When it does, you must first credit the Wolfpack, who gained momentum with a 15-2 run over the final 4:53 of the first half and led 30-27 at halftime despite clanking shots with regularity. The misfiring, or rather what transpired on the subsequent caroms, actually is the essence of why one team with length defeated another squad also blessed with imposing wingspan.
See, what stings most about this particular loss is that this season was not supposed to go down this way, not on the boards. With all that length attached to above the rim jumpers, rebounding was the failsafe, the "break this glass" move that the undersized and plodding teams the past two seasons lacked, especially when the vaunted Princeton-style offense stalled.
Sure, these Hoyas have been outrebounded here and there this season, but they also found a way to get one or a dozen when needed. Not on Sunday.
Led by forwards Richard Howell and C.J. Leslie, the Wolfpack stayed afloat early by generating points from 10 first-half offensive rebounds, including off their own missed free throws. Their 17 offensive rebounds overall matched the most the Hoyas allowed this season and the Wolfpack finished with a 15-8 advantage in second-chance points
Sims sitting the final 14:20 of the first half contributed to the Wolfpack repeatedly creating second-chance scoring opportunities. Of course, N.C. State still grabbed seven offensive rebounds in the second half alone - or one less then Georgetown all game - and Sims was on the court when their lead ballooned to 11 points.
Maybe if JTIII judiciously worked the senior back in the lineup, it helps extend Georgetown's early lead or slows the Wolfpack's eventual roll. Maybe getting Sims (four points) involved leads to him attempting more than three shots overall. Maybe the fact that both of Sims' early fouls came on the offensive end simply freaked out the coaching staff; after all, it's much easier to control aggressive plays guarding the ball then possessing it while looking to score.
Then there was the 3-point shooting. And shooting. And shooting. Even with the early lead, the Hoyas continually launched from distance, unable to generate consistent inside action against the Wolfpack defenders. Of Georgetown's 51 total shots, 25 came from beyond the arc, its highest percentage of 3-point attempts on the season.
Hollis Thompson (season-high 23 points) blissfully knocked down three of the Hoyas eight made 3's, while Jason Clark (10 points) struggled throughout, missing seven of eight from deep in his final game for Georgetown.
Yet the Hoyas drew closer. The team that pulled out late wins at Alabama and against Marquette trailed by just one point after a pair of Sims free throws inside the final minute and 63-61 with 24 seconds left. But Porter missed a contested jumper that would have tied the game. After another NC State free throw, Clark's running 3-pointer at the buzzer went wide. Then the heads sagged - though they shouldn't.
When the season started, nobody knew or sensed what this squad might accomplish. That is why this campaign should not be lumped in with other recent editions where preseason expectations far surpassed the rather pedestrian outlook foisted upon the current roster. By the numbers, these Hoyas - ranked much of the season and finished in a fourth place tie in the Big East - overachieved. They proved long ago that the Big East coaches that predicted a 10th place conference finish clearly misjudged the youthful talent.
Yet, in the end, it felt exactly the same.