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Boiling over: Decades of controversy, heated battles define storied rivalry between Syracuse and Georgetown
The latest chapter of the Syracuse-Georgetown rivalry took place six days ago in Houston. Former SU great John Wallace and Hoya nemesis Jerome Williams, both in town for the NBA’s All-Star Weekend, battled it out in the Legends Game at Hofheinz Pavilion, just like old times.
Wallace and Williams showed flashes of their younger selves, flying around the court, trading bucket after bucket and dunk after dunk as they did one wild night in the Carrier Dome 17 years ago.
“It was John Wallace versus JYD and Syracuse versus Georgetown,” said Williams, who was known as the “Junkyard Dog” during his nine-year NBA career. “The rivalry still continued.”
The iconic rivalry, one that defined Big East basketball and captivated college basketball fans, will continue in front of a record crowd of 35,012 in the Dome this Saturday at 4 p.m. It will be the last time the Hoyas visit Central New York as a conference foe with the Orange making the jump to the Atlantic Coast Conference next season. And it could be the last time ever as both teams move on and create new rivals in the future.
From Patrick Ewing, Alonzo Mourning and Allen Iverson at Georgetown, to Pearl Washington, Derrick Coleman and Billy Owens at Syracuse, legendary players starred in the classic matchups. And Syracuse head coach Jim Boeheim and Georgetown head coach John Thompson Jr. fueled it with their personalities as they patrolled opposite sidelines. The players, coaches and atmosphere surrounding each game combined to build a rivalry among the best ever in college basketball.
“I don’t know if it rivals Duke-(North) Carolina, but it’s close,” said Craig Esherick, who served on the Georgetown staff from 1979-99 before taking over as head coach that year.
Esherick points to two moments that have shaped the rivalry in the last 33 years.
The first one started it all in the first season of the Big East in 1979-80. It’s become a part of Syracuse-Georgetown lore, the one that got the blood boiling between the two programs.
It was the final game at Manley Field House. Syracuse had won 57 straight in the building. Georgetown crashed the party and pulled the upset. John Thompson Jr. grabbed the microphone after the game and declared, “Manley Field House is officially closed.”
“I’m sure that heated up the blood for all the Syracuse fans,” Esherick said.
The second came four years later at Madison Square Garden after the Hoyas beat the Orangemen 82-71 in overtime to win the Big East tournament championship. This time, it was an irate Boeheim who made a declaration at his press conference after the game, saying, “The best team did not win tonight.”
Boeheim’s fury was an eye-opening moment for Esherick. This game was different.
“He didn’t throw a chair in the same way that Bobby Knight threw a chair,” Esherick said, laughing. “It was more like he shoved the chair.
“That, if anything, showed the importance of the game, but that was something I remember in terms of saying these two teams playing each other has become something beyond just a regular season game between two teams in college basketball.”
That was always clear when the Hoyas made the trip to the Dome. No motivation was required for either team as 30,000-plus packed the arena. The stage didn’t get any bigger.
Fans upped the ante for the matchups against the Hoyas, too. Sometimes that meant crossing the line, as they did a year after Boeheim’s postgame rant when No. 2 Georgetown visited the Dome in January 1985.
With Ewing at the free-throw line, a fan drilled the backboard with an orange and delayed the game. Order needed to be restored. In stepped Boeheim.
“Boeheim had to get on the microphone and say, ‘Listen, it’s not right for you to do that,’” Washington said. “‘We’re playing Georgetown in this game – if you want this game to finish then you better stop doing what you’re doing.
“That’s kind of like how that rivalry was, you know what I’m saying?”
Wallace’s final game in the rivalry in 1996 at the Dome doubled as his best and most memorable. To understand why, he must revisit his worst at the USAir Arena 18 days earlier.
Wallace, who entered the game averaging 23 points per game, was limited to 17 on 6-for-13 shooting in the Hoyas’ 83-64 beatdown of the Orangemen on Jan. 24. The Syracuse star chalked it up to an off night.
But GU forward Boubacar Aw told a different story that made headlines in the newspapers. He asked to guard the prolific scorer, telling Thompson he’d shut him down.
Wallace was ready to set the record straight in the rematch.
“I told him right at the jump ball, ‘You’re gonna be my bitch today,’” Wallace said. “And I went out and had 25 and (13), and every time I scored, I looked at John Thompson or Boubacar Aw and told them, ‘There’s no way one guy can guard me. Are you kidding me?’
“I wanted to beat them more than anyone else in the Big East just because it’s Georgetown-Syracuse.”
The same game stands out above all others for Williams. He and Wallace went back and forth, trading bucket after bucket in front of 32,589 that day. The Georgetown forward nearly matched his counterpart’s inspired effort, scoring 24 points and grabbing 12 boards.
The build-up to every matchup couldn’t be matched by any other opponent for Williams and Wallace.
It was the game they both grew up watching, and it was the only one that mattered the moment the schedule came out each year.
“When we were playing, it was always about when is Georgetown-Syracuse playing,” Williams said. “When’s the game, when is the game.”
Every time they see each other, the rivalry comes to life for the old friends.
The battles restarted in Detroit when they were teammates on the Pistons during the 2000-01 season. They picked up again at the Legends Game at last year’s Final Four in New Orleans, where Wallace dunked over Williams and immediately alluded to the SU-Georgetown connection. And most recently, it was in Houston last Saturday, when Williams returned the favor and rejected a Wallace dunk attempt.
“We’re evened up on that front,” Wallace said. “He’s actually one of the few guys that I’m actually really friendly with from Georgetown.”
Wallace and Williams will be texting before, during and after the game Saturday. They’ve kept tabs on their respective programs since their time as much as they’ve looked back on their glory days. The rivalry still means something to them.
Wallace highlights the genuine dislike between programs as the reason it’s been so special. Esherick, the former Georgetown coach, says the legacy will be characterized by the classic games and big-time players when the rivalry is looked back on.
“It was a tremendous event every game,” Esherick said. “And you got to see pretty high-quality basketball every game, too.
The rivalry between Syracuse and Georgetown may continue the next time Williams and Wallace cross paths. But Saturday may be the last time the Hoyas ever make the trip to the Dome.
And all-time bragging rights are on the line.
“With one team leaving, I know that the rivalry is going to stay alive with whoever wins the game,” Williams said. “Because on their way out, are they leaving as the rulers of the Big East or are they leaving as second team?
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