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College basketball: Bittersweet ending for classic rivalry

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Whether it was John Thompson proclaiming “Manley Field House is officially closed,’’ Patrick Ewing being pelted with Oranges from the rafters of the Carrier Dome, or visions of the multitude of close games over the years, treasured memories of the Syracuse-Georgetown Big East Conference rivalry will last forever.

Sadly, when the Hoyas visit the sold-out Dome on Saturday for the 31st and final time as conference opponents, much of the history of the greatest rivalry in Big East history will be banished to the vaults forever.

But certainly not forgotten.

“Hopefully, it will live on and we’ll be able to find a time and place to play them again,’’ said SU coach Jim Boeheim, who has been an integral part of the previous 30 encounters at the Dome since it opened for the 1980-81 season. “I don’t like to think about it ending. But Saturday will be very emotional for me of any game I’ve coached in the regular season. By a mile. And I’ve coached a few thousand.’’

The two teams also finish the regular season at Georgetown on March 9. But a visit by the Hoyas to the Dome has always been a special moment in time, for all those involved.

“When I think of Georgetown I think of tough, physical, emotional games,’’ said SU assistant coach Mike Hopkins, who played against the Hoyas from 1989-1993, and has been sitting next to Boeheim on the bench from 1995 until today. “You always knew each team would bring their best, and that the Dome fans would really be into the game. Sometimes to a fault.’’

“I’m sure the memories will come flowing back when we see them come onto the court Saturday,’’ Hopkins said. “It’s the end of an era, and I don’t think we’ll ever have a rival that even comes close to what Georgetown has meant to us, and vice versa.’’

First some history.

Georgetown has come to the Dome each year but three since 1980-81. During three seasons (1998-99, 2003-04, 2005-06), the teams played each other just once in Washington D.C.

Syracuse holds a 22-8 edge in the all-time Dome series, and has won the last five. But that is only by a combined 23 points.

Three of the past seven and six overall games have gone to overtime, and an astounding 26 of those matchups have been decided by 10 points or less.

“You just know when Georgetown and Syracuse meet it’s probably coming down to the wire,’’ said current Georgetown coach John Thompson III, son of the longtime head man. “The two teams bring out the best in each other, and they are fiercely competitive. It’s not always pretty, but you can count on a knockdown, drag-out battle.’’

This season, Saturday’s game has special meaning. The two teams are tied with Marquette for first place in the conference with 10-3 records. A victory by either will go a long way toward helping them to a top-four finish and a coveted bye into the conference quarterfinals in New York City.

“It’s always a big game, but when first place is on the line, it goes to another level,’’ said SU assistant Gerry McNamara, who was part of the rivalry as a player from 2003-2007. “I can remember getting chills all over my body when you came running out onto the court and saw people sitting in the far end zone of the Dome. It’s really amazing what this game means to our fans.’’

So much so that a record 35,012 tickets have already been sold for Saturday’s game, surpassing the previous record of 34,616 for the Villanova game on Feb. 27, 2010.

The Georgetown game at the Dome has drawn more than 30,000 on 16 occasions. That is more than twice as many as the next best team (Connecticut, Pittsburgh, St. John’s, Villanova with seven). And the Hoyas’ visit has generated three of the top 10 all-time crowds.

“It’s going to be amazing. The Dome will probably be shaking,’’ said SU senior James Southerland, who also played during the Villanova record-breaker. “I’ve told some of the young guys not to lose their focus and get caught up in the moment. We have to prepare as if it’s just another game, even though we know it isn’t.’’

Fellow senior Brandon Triche said the key to playing well in such an emotional game is “to take it all in during warm-ups, and then to just focus on the task at hand once the game starts. Sometimes that’s not really easy when everybody you see during the week reminds you what a big game it is.’’

SU sophomore point guard Michael Carter-Williams, who played two minutes in the Orange’s 64-61 overtime win over Georgetown in last year’s Dome meeting, said the importance of the game and the record crowd “will be a distraction, no doubt. But once you step on the court and the ball is tipped, you can relax. Everything leading up to the game is more stressful that the game itself.’’

The Orange are 48-23 playing before 30,000-plus crowds.

“The crowd can give you a huge lift,’’ Southerland said. “They live and die with each shot and give you the support you need to play even harder. If you’re a recruit and you either come to the Dome for a game like this or watch it on TV, it certainly makes an impact. I remember being here for a Georgetown game when I was being recruited and just seeing all the fans dressed in Orange. There’s no other place like the Dome when it’s filled with that many people.’’

As for the end of an era, Boeheim said, “Georgetown-Syracuse has meant everything to me and the Big East. We had an unbelievable rivalry. It was very heated for a long time, and very amicable for a long time since.’’

The Big East rivalry between the teams can be traced back to Feb. 13, 1980, when Georgetown upset No. 2-ranked Syracuse 52-50 in the last game at Manley Field House.

After his team’s win, which ended Syracuse’s 57-game homecourt winning streak, Hoyas’ coach Thompson uttered the famous line, “Manley Field House is officially closed.’’

SU’s first win over Georgetown in the Dome was a 66-64 victory in 1980.

“I can’t imagine a season without playing Georgetown,’’ McNamara said. “I know we’re going to establish new rivalries in the ACC. But there certainly will be a void without the Hoyas on the schedule.’’

COLEMAN RETURNS

SU freshman center DaJuan Coleman, who had arthroscopic surgery on his knee on Jan. 29, has returned to practice and will be available to play Saturday.

Coleman, a 6-foot-9, 275-pound center, practiced Thursday at the Carmelo K. Anthony Basketball Center.

“It felt real good just to get out and start running again,’’ Coleman told the Syracuse Post-Standard. “I’m real happy.’’

Coleman started the first 20 games of the season, averaging 5 points and 4.4 rebounds.

Sportswriter John Day covers Syracuse University basketball for the Times. He can be reached at jday@wdt.net

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