Film Session: Who can actually beat Kentucky and why

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“Can anyone actually beat Kentucky?”

Ever since the Wildcats jumped out to a 24-0 lead on UCLA on that December weekend in Chicago, that’s the question that I’ve been asked more than any other. It doesn’t matter if I’m doing a radio show in Omaha, a TV spot for CSN’s Washington affiliate or simply happen to mention what I do for a living to someone at a bar.

And the answer is yes. Upsets do happen. These are college kids, after all. Ole Miss lost to Charleston Southern before taking Kentucky to overtime in Rupp. Georgia and LSU, who have lost a combined five games to the dregs of the SEC, both held significant leads on Kentucky late in the second half. Hell, Columbia gave the Wildcats a scare.

But, I’d argue, Kentucky, for whatever reason, either didn’t play well or didn’t show up ready to play in all four of those games.

When Kentucky shows up focused, when they’re playing well under the bright lights of the NCAA tournament with a 40-0 season within their reach, are there any teams that can actually beat the Wildcats?

These six can:

VIRGINIA

The way I see it, there are three things an opponent has to do to be able to beat the Wildcats:

  • 1. Avoid getting dominated in the paint: The Wildcats can be downright overwhelming on the offensive glass, with their best offense oftentimes being a missed shot. And that’s to say nothing of Karl Towns, who has turned into their go-to guy in crunch time. Over the course of the last month, when they really need a bucket, John Calipari has been force-feeding him the ball on the block.
  • 2. Force them to shoot over the top of the defense: The weakness for this Kentucky team offensively is that they don’t have a myriad of great shooters. You want them settling for jumpers.
  • 3. Score early or late in the shot clock: Kentucky’s half-court defense is tremendous. If you can’t beat them down the floor for quick, easy buckets in transition, you need to have the patience to run your sets until you get an open look.

No team in the country can do all three of these things as effectively as a healthy Virginia team can.

For starters, they are fourth nationally in defensive rebounding percentage, a stat that determines how many of the available offensive rebounds an opponent gets. Virginia gives up offensive boards just 24.0 percent of the time. By comparison, Kentucky grabs 40.4 percent of the available offensive rebounds. The Wildcats have enough size and athleticism that they will get to the offensive glass against anyone, but there isn’t a team in the country that is more disciplined when it comes to boxing out than the Cavaliers, whose front line includes 7-foot Mike Tobey, 6-foot-8 Anthony Gill, 6-foot-8 Darion Atkins and 6-foot-6 Justin Anderson at the three.

The talk earlier this season was that the Wildcats were on pace to finish the season with the best defense in the 13 years that KenPom.com, an advanced analytics website that uses per-possession efficiency to determine just how good a team is, has been in existence. That is no longer the case, as Virginia has actually surpassed Kentucky in defensive efficiency.

Virginia runs the Pack-Line, a man-to-man containment defense that involves tremendous ball-pressure inviting dribble penetration into help defenders. I’ve gone in depth on the Pack-Line before, but essentially, it’s a defense designed to force offenses into contested, drive-and-kick jumpers, which is precisely what any team wants Kentucky to do. Virginia is also notorious for only sending two players to the offensive glass, which will limit the chances Kentucky has for leak-outs and easy buckets in transition.

The other part of the Pack-Line that behooves Virginia’s matchup with Kentucky is that they completely take away any post threat with big-to-big doubles on the catch. Here’s what I mean. Look at where Darion Atkins (red circle), who is guarding Amile Jefferson here, is as Tyus Jones starts to deliver an entry pass:

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Screengrab via Synergy

Then look at where Atkins and Malcolm Brogdon (green circle), who takes away the pass to Jefferson, are when Okafor makes the catch in the post:

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Screengrab via Synergy

Here’s the play at real speed:

Virginia is the best team in the country at moving defensively while the ball is in the air. They can take away Towns’ post-ups.

Offensively, Virginia has had their issues of late, but when Anderson was healthy, they were a top ten team in offensive efficiency. It remains to be seen whether or not he will still be one of the country’s most dangerous spot-up shooters when he returns, which is critical if the Cavs do square-off with the Wildcats. Virginia runs good offense — they can break down Kentucky’s defense with set plays and rarely settle for bad shots early in a possession — but Anderson’s shooting ability will help to spread the floor and open up space in the paint for drivers, cutters and post-ups.

The final score may not even make it into the 50s, but assuming Justin Anderson is healthy, no team in the country is better prepared to knock off the Wildcats than Virginia.

WISCONSIN

Like Virginia, the Badgers are one of the nation’s best defensive rebounding teams, allowing opponents to grab offensive rebounds just 23.2 percent of the time. They have the size along their front line to matchup with Kentucky — Frank Kaminsky is every bit of seven feet, while fellow starters Sam Dekker and Nigel Hayes are 6-foot-9 and 6-foot-8, respectively — and while they don’t have the depth that Kentucky has up front, they play at a pace that limits how tired their guys will get and are the nation’s best when it comes to defending without fouling.

Wisconsin is nowhere near as good defensively as Virginia is, but Kentucky doesn’t have the personnel to exploit their biggest weakness on that end. Where Wisconsin gets into trouble is with athletic wings that can slash to the rim and dynamic, play-making point guards, the latter of which is a bigger issue as long as Trae Jackson is still recovering from his broken foot. Neither Nigel Hayes nor Sam Dekker are particularly quick laterally, and when an opponent has a small forward that can put the ball on the floor and get to the rim — like, for example, Maryland’s Dez Wells — the Badgers are vulnerable.

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AP Photo

Kentucky doesn’t have anyone like that. When the Wildcats play Trey Lyles at the three it actually plays into Wisconsin’s hands from a matchup perspective, while Devin Booker and Aaron Harrison are shooters more than they are drivers.

And, like Virginia, Wisconsin often eschews chasing offensive rebounds, preferring to get back on defense, prevent easy transition points and defend in the half court.

All of that helps the Badgers, but the real reason that they are going to be able give Kentucky a fight if they square off is Wisconsin’s ability to invert their offense.

Bo Ryan’s club is the nation’s most efficient offensive team, and up until a few weeks ago, they were actually on pace to set a KenPom-era record in that stat. Everything more or less runs through Kaminsky, who is National Player of the Year and having one of the best statistical seasons in recent memory. He leads the Badgers in scoring, rebounding, assists, steals and blocks, posting the numbers he does despite playing in an offense that averages the sixth-fewest possessions per game in the country.

Kaminsky does much of his damage in the post, but he’s such a fluid player for his size that he can step out and drill threes or put the ball on the floor and get to the rim, scoring or dishing to an open teammate. He’s not the only Wisconsin big capable of doing this, either. Dekker can as well. Hayes is shooting 37.0 percent from three. Duje Dukan, the first big off the bench, has had a tough year, but he’s a guy that capable of hitting two or three threes in a row if he gets into a rhythm.

And it’s the ability of those big guys to step out on the perimeter that allows Wisconsin to do some different things offensively. I’ve already gone in depth on how they invert their offense, meaning they use their bigs on the perimeter and allow their smaller players to penetrate and post up, isolating mismatches in a way similar to Fred Hoiberg at Iowa State, but it’s that frontline versatility that will allow the Badgers to get good shots.

Even against a defense as stingy as Kentucky’s.

And if there is anything you should know about Wisconsin by now, they have no problem using all 35 seconds of the shot clock to ensure that they get a good look at the rim. Take a look at this possession. Not only does Kaminsky run off of a pair of back-screens, but he passes out of a double team, which leads to a ball-reversal and a post-up for Hayes, who finds Kaminsky wide-open at the top of the key:

That’s tough for anyone to defend.

DUKE

Despite having some serious defensive issues, the Blue Devils have nonetheless managed to put together a season worthy of a No. 1 seed. They’ve won at Wisconsin, at Virginia and at Louisville, are 27-3 on the season and will be a trendy pick to make a run to the Final Four thanks to the presence of Jahlil Okafor.

Okafor will likely have a difficult time should he be matched up with Kentucky. He’s not in great physical condition at this point in his career, an issue that would likely come to the forefront as the Wildcats rotate through their trio of seven-footers and force Okafor to work his tail off on the defensive end of the floor.

Duke has had two main issues defensively this season. For starters, they struggle defending guards that can create off the dribble, either in isolations or ball-screen situations — something we went over in detail here. Kentucky doesn’t really have that personnel, which is a good thing for Duke. What they do have, however, is a front line that can overpower anyone, let alone a team that has been susceptible on the offensive glass this season.

The good news for Duke? They are the most explosive offensive team in the country. They were completely dominated by Virginia on the road, but found a way to score on 14 of the final 15 possessions, scoring 35 points in less that ten minutes against the nation’s best defense. When you can score in transition and shoot the three the way that Duke can, you’re rarely out of a game.

ARIZONA

I don’t love a matchup between with Kentucky for Arizona. Defensively, they should be fine. Sean Miller runs the Pack-Line defense like Tony Bennett at Virginia, and while his guys aren’t quite as good as the Cavs, they are still a top five team on that end of the floor. They’re not going to be physically overwhelmed by Kentucky, not with the amount of size and athleticism they have up and down their roster.

No, my concern with the Wildcats is on the offensive end of the floor. They can go through massive scoring droughts, and while the recent emergence of Kaleb Tarczewski as a real low-post option offensively is a good thing, I’m just not sure Arizona is good enough to consistently break down Kentucky’s defense. Rondae Hollis-Jefferson can be defended as a non-shooter. Stanley Johnson has had issues finishing at the rim all season, issues that will be magnified against Kentucky’s massive front line. Gabe York has been dangerous of late, but he is a defensive liability, as is Elliot Pitts.

As we went over in the Player of the Year Power Rankings this week, T.J. McConnell has been terrific in the pick-and-roll this season, but the ability of Willie Cauley-Stein — and, to a lesser extent, Karl Towns and Marcus Lee — to defend perimeter players limits the effectiveness of ball-screen actions against Kentucky.

Watch this possession from Tuesday night:

Kentucky switched five ball-screens involving their two worst front line defenders, and Georgia settled for a three from Marcus Thornton, a power forward that has hit nine all season long.

You can’t beat Kentucky with ball-screens.

GONZAGA

There are two reasons I don’t like this matchup for the Zags. For starters, like Arizona, so much of their offense comes out of ball-screen actions involving Kevin Pangos, which are no where near as effective against the Wildcats as they are against anyone else.

But the other issue is Kyle Wiltjer. He’s the vital piece to this puzzle, as he’s the kind of stretch-four that will open up the Kentucky defense and give Przemek Karnowski and Domas Sabonis space to play in the paint. But Wiltjer is a liability on the other end of the floor. He’s not a good defender, he’s not a good rebounder and he’s not physical enough to deal with Kentucky’s bigs. Sabonis and Karnowski are, but those two will struggle to play together because neither of them are a threat outside of eight feet.

Wiltjer is capable of going off for 30 points, which is why the Zags made this list despite his defensive issues, but he would need some serious revenge-game mojo if this upset were to happen.

VILLANOVA

I don’t like this matchup for the Wildcats. I don’t think they have the size inside to deal with Kentucky’s big men, but they don’t really have the front line pieces to be able to spread the floor, either. The key will end up being Kris Jenkins, a 6-foot-6 stretch four that is shooting 40.6 percent from three. He’s not anywhere near the defender of the rebounder that either JayVaughn Pinkston or Daniel Ochefu is, but both of those guys do all of their damage in and around the paint. That will get taken away by Kentucky’s size.

Oklahoma State charged with one Level I violation in Notice of Allegations

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Oklahoma State has been charged with one Level I violation as a result of the FBI’s investigation into corruption in college basketball, the school announced on Friday afternoon.

That violation stems from the conduct of former assistant coach Lamont Evans, who was sentenced to three months in prison in June for accepting bribes in exchange for exerting influence on the players he coached to choose the people bribing him as a financial advisor. Evans is alleged to have received at least $18,150 from Marty Blazer and Munish Sood, who were financial advisors.

“The University agrees that Mr. Evans did in fact accept bribes for the purpose of steering players to financial advisors in violation of NCAA bylaws,” the school said in a statement.

Evans supplied former Cowboy guard Jeffery Carroll with $300 to influence the player. Carroll was eventually suspended for three games at the start of the 2017-18 season.

There were no other violations, recruiting or otherwise, that turned up turning the NCAA’s investigation of Oklahoma State. Neither current head coach Mike Boynton nor former head coach Brad Underwood were accused of wrongdoing. Underwood was in charge of the program when Evans was caught on FBI wiretaps discussing the bribes while Boynton was the coach when the news of the FBI’s investigation broke in September of 2017.

To read the full Notice of Allegations, click here.

Thursday’s Things to Know: Struggles pop up for Pac-12, Georgetown picks up a big win and a wedgie rescues Notre Dame

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There weren’t any matchups between top-25 teams Thursday night, with the main November events still a week away, but there is plenty to discuss from around the country. Here’s what you need to know.

1. A rough night for the Pac-12

After a strong start to the season, the Pac-12 came back down to earth on Thursday.

The league only managed to get just three teams into the NCAA tournament in each of the last two years. But things have been pretty dire since the league expanded ahead of the 2011-12 season. That year the league’s regular-season champion, Washington, didn’t even make the tournament, though Cal (a 12 seed) and Colorado (11) did. That’s it.

Things have, admittedly, improved since then, but that was really the only direction to head, right? Only three times in the last eight years has the conference gotten more than four teams into the tournament. The Pac-12, which as a reminder is a Power 5 conference, has only been ranked as a top-five conference nationally on KenPom three times in the last eight years.

There isn’t much in the way of expectation for the league this season, certainly past the quartet of Oregon, Colorado, Arizona and Washington, but the conference started hot. Entering Thursday, they were 43-4 combined on the season. Still, though, nights like Thursday are difficult to watch.

It was an awful evening for the Pac-12, with Washington State blowing a 16-point lead at home in an eventual 85-77 loss to Omaha of the Summit League, Utah getting blasted 79-55 by the Sun Belt’s Coastal Carolina in the Myrtle Beach Classic and Cal getting demolished by top-ranked Duke, 87-52. Then to top it all off, UCLA lost at home to CAA resident Hofstra. Arizona was the bright spot of the night, and the Wildcats needed to overcome a halftime deficit to beat South Dakota State in Tucson.

Obviously, none of those four teams which lost Thursday were expected to carry the Pac-12 banner this season and 12-team leagues are going to inevitably have some bad teams every season, but, my goodness, is there a better distillation of the overall health of the league’s basketball than a night like this?

Cal was miles away from being able to compete with the Blue Devils while both the Cougars and Utes couldn’t even hang with teams from so-so mid-major conferences. UCLA is the flagship program in the conference and they lost to a Hofstra team that lost their pro to graduation this offseason. It’s a league whose best teams can compete against the country’s best, but has almost no meaningful depth beyond that thin upper crust.

The Pac-12 has had just one Final Four team since its expansion, with Oregon getting there in 2017. That ties the conference with the Missouri Valley over that same period. Some of it is a self-fulfilling prophecy. If the vast majority of the Pac-12 is no good, it makes building an NCAA resume for its good teams more difficult, leaving them with more difficult NCAA tournament paths. Maybe that changes this year if undefeated starts for USC, Stanford and UCLA signal an improving middle class. Thursday’s results don’t signal good times on the horizon, though.

It’s just all around ugly for the Pac-12.

It’s bad news for people who like to stay up late watching west coast basketball, but it’s really bad news for a league whose genuine tradition slides further and further into memory with each passing season.

2. Georgetown lands a top-25 win

The first two years of the Patrick Ewing era at Georgetown have been encouraging, with the Hoyas improving both their overall and Big East win totals by four in Year 2 of the Hall of Famer’s return to his alma mater. It wasn’t enough to get the Hoyas even on to the NCAA bubble last year, though, thanks in part to a horribly weak non-conference schedule.

The Hoyas beefed up their early-season schedule this season, and just saw the first fruits of the decision.

Georgetown ran away from No. 22 Texas in an 82-66 victory at Madison Square Garden to land a potentially resume-booster four months before Selection Sunday.

Ewing has an interesting and talented team with the backcourt duo of James Akinjo and Mac McClung back for sophomore seasons and big man Omer Yurtseven eligible after sitting out last season following his transfer from NC State. Testing this group early is only going to pay dividends in the long-run.

Ewing’s first non-conference schedule was ranked 351st by KenPom and last year’s was only marginally better at 292. Now, the Hoyas have already faced Penn State and Texas, with Duke on a neutral floor coming Friday with a road swing at Oklahoma State and SMU on tap before Syracuse visits D.C.

That’s a real non-conference schedule. And Ewing might have the team to navigate it, with the destination ultimately being his first NCAA tournament appearance.

3. Notre Dame rides wedgie to win

There are fewer pure facepalm moments on a basketball court than when a player lodges a shot between the rim and the backboard. The wedgie, as it’s commonly known, is one of the game’s great quirks.

Maybe never, though, has the phenomenon been as welcomed as it was in South Bend on Thursday.

The wedgie helped Notre Dame pull itself out of a tight spot.

Down three, the Fighting Irish got a great look from distance, but TJ Gibbs’ attempt missed its mark. Had it been any normal carom, the game would have just ended with a Notre Dame home loss to Toledo. But no, my friends, Gibbs’ miss was not of the standard variety. It was, indeed, a wedgie. Which means a stopped clock and a jump ball, giving the ball back to Notre Dame with a second to play.

That set up Nate Laszewski’s overtime-forcing triple as time expired in regulation. Notre Dame went on to win, 64-62, in overtime.

Truly, a rescue wedgie.

Davide Moretti sparks No. 12 Texas Tech in 2nd Half of 72-57 Win

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LUBBOCK, Texas — Davide Moretti scored 13 of his 19 points after halftime, including all four of his 3-pointers, and No. 12 Texas Tech finally pulled away for a 72-57 win over Tennessee State on Thursday night.

Freshmen Terrence Shannon Jr. and Jahmi’us Ramsey each scored 13 points for the Red Raiders (4-0).

The Red Raiders were only up by 35-32 with just under 12 minutes left, and Tennessee State (3-2) had just missed a potential tying 3-pointer, before Moretti sparked the home team. The guard, the only returning starter after Tech went to the national championship game last season, had a pair of 3-pointers in a 10-3 run. Tech added 11 points in a row soon after that.

The Red Raiders, who never trailed, ended up leading by as many as 18 points late despite shooting only 34% (17 of 50 field goals).

Ravel Moody had 12 points to lead Tennessee State, which shot 35% (18 of 51). Wesley Harris and Shakem Johnson each scored 10 points.

Kyler Edwards added 10 points for Texas Tech, making up for his 1-of-11 shooting from the field by making all eight of his free throws. Chris Clark was scoreless while taking only one shot in 26 minutes, but he had 12 rebounds and four assists.

BIG PICTURE

Tennessee State: The Tigers clawed all night against the reigning national runner-up. A bad shooting night by the Red Raiders kept the Tigers in the game, but fouls proved to be a key contributor to the loss. Tech made 32 of 38 free throws. Tennessee State faced tough competition in their first trip to Lubbock in history.

Texas Tech: An eight-day break for the Red Raiders may have been a factor in their slow night. Ramsey, the freshman who had gotten off to a tremendous start, was 4-of-13 shooting and missed all six of his 3-point attempts. Tech’s defense, on the other hand, showed different life with solid press, zone and man coverage.

UP NEXT

Tennessee State heads to the West Coast to take on San Diego State on Monday night.

Texas Tech hosts Long Island on Sunday before leaving the state of Texas for the first time. The Red Raiders will spend the Thanksgiving holiday playing two games in Las Vegas.

NCAA denies waiver appeal from Michigan State’s Joey Hauser

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EAST LANSING, Mich. — Michigan State coach Tom Izzo was taught by his mentor, the late Jud Heathcote, to give back to the game by being part of the National Association of Basketball Coaches.

The Hall of Famer is choosing not to do that anymore.

A frustrated Izzo said Thursday he was resigning from the NABC board of directors after nearly 18 years of service. He said he wanted to focus on his team and family, but he also blamed the NCAA for making what he called “arbitrary decisions” regarding waiver requests, including denying forward Joey Hauser’s appeal to play this season.

“Joey did have a strong case and I’m devasted,” Izzo said.

Hauser transferred from Marquette in May and requested a waiver from the NCAA to be eligible immediately instead of sitting out the season, per usual transfer rules. The NCAA recently changed its waiver policy to give more undergraduate transfers a chance to become immediately eligible to compete.

“We opened Pandora’s box and maybe it will never be shut,” Izzo said.

Ohio State quarterback Justin Fields is among the football players who received a waiver to play in 2019 after transferring following the 2018 season. Earlier this week, the NCAA cleared forward Gabe Osabuohien to play at West Virginia this season after approving his waiver request and TCU got a boost when Ohio State transfer Jaedon LeDee was granted a waiver.

Izzo did not reference any specific decision the NCAA has made, but he said the governing body is relying on people outside of the game to make critical decisions. He said he has tried to be a part of coming up with solutions as part of the NABC, but stepped down from his role because he is fed up.

“I just don’t believe I want to be dealing with these problems and banging my head against the wall,” he said.

Jim Haney, the longtime executive director of the NABC, said Izzo is not the only coach frustrated.

“There’s a lack of trust in terms of the process,” Haney said in a telephone interview. “Coaches look at stories about this kid becoming eligible immediately and then find out this kid is not and there’s a lot of uncertainty. Tom deeply cares about the game and is a great steward. When his frustration comes to the point that he wants to disengage from the conversation, I think that says something significant.”

A message seeking comment was left with the NCAA.

The 6-foot-9 Hauser, who is from Stevens Point, Wisconsin, averaged nearly 10 points and five-plus rebounds last season as a freshman.

The third-ranked Spartans play Virginia Tech next week in the Maui Invitational, where they will also face Dayton or Georgia and potentially No. 4 Kansas.

Patrick Ewing wins big again at MSG, Hoyas knock off No. 22 Texas

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NEW YORK — Mac McClung scored 19 points to help give coach Patrick Ewing another signature moment at Madison Square Garden, leading Georgetown to an 82-66 victory over No. 22 Texas on Thursday night.

The Hoyas (4-1) used a 12-0 run early in the second half that rallied the crowd and had “Let’s go Hoyas!” chants echoing throughout the arena. With his retired No. 33 New York Knicks jersey hanging in the rafters, Ewing helped orchestrate another wild one at his favorite arena.

The Hoyas are trying to make their first NCAA Tournament since 2015 and an early win over a Top 25 team could give that resume a boost.

Ewing walked on the court and waved his arms to implore the crowd to get louder in the waning moments.

That pose is a familiar sight around New York.

Ewing’s image is plastered inside and out at the Garden where he forged a Hall of Fame career. The most popular photo in the arena in one with his arms outstretched and his back toward the camera from the May 22, 1994, Game 7 win over the Chicago Bulls in the conference semis. His game-worn jersey and sneakers are encased in glass on the concourse. There’s photo of Ewing outside the Garden with his name in bold and the quote, “I always will be a Knick. And I will always be a New Yorker.”

The Knicks tweeted a photo montage of Ewing with the Hoyas and Knicks and wrote, “Pat comes full circle.”

New Yorkers and Georgetown fans haven’t forgotten the big man: Ewing walked off the court hugging and high-fiving fans on his way to the locker room.

Matt Coleman made all six 3-pointers and scored 22 points for the Longhorns (4-1). Texas lost with former Longhorn and injured Nets center Kevin Durant watching courtside. Former Longhorn and Nets center Jarrett Allen also rooted on Texas from a courtside seat.

Texas moved into the Top 25 this week at No. 22 with wins over California Baptist and Prairie View. The Longhorns are ranked for the first time this season and for the first time since November 2018.

The Hoyas made the charge to open the second half kept the pressure on to advance to the title game of the four-team tournament.

Ewing had beckoned Qudus Wahab up from the bench for a late first-half pep talk. Ewing had a few things to say to his 6-foot-11 freshman center and they ended the conversation with a fist bump.

Ewing’s motivation eventually worked on his big man. Wahab had a thunderous dunk for a 54-52 lead and the active Hoyas defensive forced another turnover under Texas’ basket. Ewing waved on the fast-break like a third base coach sending a runner home, and Terrell Allen scored to get the Garden fans up and going wild for the momentum shift. Ewing pumped his fist and the Hoyas were pushing for an upset.

The Longhorns shot only 37 percent from the floor and had 12 turnovers.

Jamorko Pickett scored 15 points and James Akinjo had 14 for the Hoyas.

BIG PICTURE

Georgetown: Former Hoyas star Alonzo Mourning was at the game to watch them knock off a ranked team for the third time under Ewing.

Texas: The Longhorns are sure to fall out of the Top 25 and now have to win a consolation game to salvage something out of their trip to New York.

UP NEXT

The Hoyas play the winner of No. 1 Duke vs. Cal on Friday in the 2K Empire Classic benefiting Wounded Warrior Project championship. Texas gets the loser of that game.