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WASHINGTON — On the shot that changed the game and swung a teetering lead back in Georgetown’s favor one final time, Aminu Mohammed caught a pass in between the 3-point arc and the paint before turning to face Jesse Edwards.
Mohammed pivoted once, and that forced Joe Girard III to collapse from the top of Syracuse’s defense. He moved a second time, and Cole Swider faded up from his assignment near the corner. And when Mohammed pivoted a third time, the movements his previous two steps triggered allowed Kaiden Rice to cut behind the 3-point line, catch a pass and elevate over Swider.
Edwards turned and stared as the ball arced over his head toward the basket. Georgetown’s bench rose in unison when the make — Rice’s fifth and final of the game — settled through the net. A one-point deficit became a 75-73 lead. Mohammed’s second-half statline of 20 points, six rebounds and two assists molded in a more concrete, and complete, form. The Hoyas opened with 7-foot center Malcolm Wilson roaming the high post, but he was “under the weather” and they couldn’t use him beyond the 13 minutes he played, head coach Patrick Ewing said postgame. That, paired with the fact that “today wasn’t Ryan (Mutombo)’s day,” Ewing said, paved the way for Mohammed’s breakout game in the high post against the porous SU defense.
In a season of five nonconference losses and three blown halftime leads, Saturday’s 79-75 loss to Georgetown (5-4, 0-0 Big East) captured the overarching, insoluble problem that keeps the Orange’s season slipping away just when they seem to have a grip on it: defensive lapses, and lots of them, within the zone defense. The Hoyas pivoted to a small-ball lineup, just like SU (5-5, 1-0 Atlantic Coast) knew it would, and still found ways to rack up 45 second-half points.
“(Mohammed) really changed the game, I would say, on that part,” Edwards said. “He made so many new opportunities for them.”
In a way, Edwards said, it’s more difficult to guard Mohammed, a 6-foot-5 guard, than it is to contain Wilson, a 7-foot center. Wilson would usually try to back Edwards down, inching him closer and closer to the blocks before turning to bank a shot in. He’d rarely work side-to-side, like Mohammed could, and face Edwards before deciding whether to drive, shoot or dish the ball to another Georgetown player on the outside.
Mohammed managed just three points across 17 minutes in the first half, but he said that the other players in Georgetown’s locker room reminded him that the middle of the zone would always be open. He had chances in the opening 20 minutes but just couldn’t convert. “They couldn’t stop it,” and if the Hoyas kept finding ways to make it into those spots, they’d eventually start stringing shots together.
“Just kill them in the middle because the zone, you can only make so much passes,” Mohammed said. “When you have the chance, you got to take a shot.”
Syracuse’s defensive issues started in the first half, Boeheim said, when Edwards “just forgot what he was doing on defense.” Edwards said that he needed to get to the corner earlier to defend those shots, needed to sense the ball might be headed there and then adjust when it did. But those struggles surfaced more in the second half, after Georgetown’s switch to the smaller lineup and Mohammed’s continual presence in the high post.
With just over 14 minutes remaining in the second half, Mohammed collected an entrance pass from Tyler Beard at the left elbow and drove in between Jimmy Boeheim and Edwards. He paused, drop-stepped, forced Edwards into the air and laid it off the backboard with his left hand. Edwards said postgame that he needed to stay down on those pump-fakes, even though it was difficult to judge at times, but still find a way to make it a difficult shot without fouling — “I know he’s going to shoot it, but I just don’t know when,” Edwards said.
Once Mohammed’s points started adding up, and Syracuse’s lead kept decreasing until it evaporated altogether, Edwards and Buddy Boeheim said they tried to pinch the gaps at the top of the zone. Sometimes the pair switched back to the 1-1-3 so Buddy could focus on the high post spot and make it more difficult for those entrance passes. But, Edwards added, he couldn’t creep up too far and leave Georgetown’s players with open space on the blocks.
“We’ve struggled all year inside defensively,” Boeheim said. “We made some changes, but at the end of the day it doesn’t matter what defense you play, you got to play it. We’re not playing it good enough.”
That’s the difficult, and more concerning, part for the Orange that stems from the quantity of defensive wounds they’ve faced and the degree to which each one has throbbed. “I don’t really think there’s one thing” that needs fixing, Jimmy said postgame, because it depends on which team SU faces. Sometimes, teams will rely on the 3-point shot. That’s what Colgate did. Other times, like Georgetown on Saturday and so many other teams in years past, they’ll attack the zone via the high post.
Mohammed earned an and-1 on Edwards within the first two minutes of the second half. Then, he made a 3-pointer before converting a shot following a Georgetown offensive rebound. As a team, Georgetown shot 56% from the field in the final 20 minutes after only managing 36.7% in the opening frame. Second-half spurts by opposing offenses have become a trend for Syracuse, and Mohammed became the latest sample in a collection that keeps growing.
“It’s just hard,” Edwards said, “because there’s so many things I could’ve done better, and I’m sure everybody else has some things. But it’s very frustrating right now for us.”
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