Friday, February 16, 2007

Villanova/Georgetown Rivalry History

by Craig Dimitri

Saturday's game will be the 62nd meeting between Villanova and Georgetown. The Hoyas lead the all-time series, 34-27, and a comfortable 28-20 in Big East play, despite the fact that the Wildcats have captured eight of the last ten meetings, including the last three.
Villanova's legendary rivalry with Georgetown is truly remarkable. The greatest game in Villanova history took place on April 1, 1985, when the Wildcats defeated the heavily-favored Hoyas to capture the NCAA championship. For more on the traditions and rivalry, please keep reading...

At the end of this article, I will tell the story of the 1985 game, the most thrilling game I have ever seen, in any sport. But before I do so, I will describe the rise of the Hoya empire. Villanova's upset is fully appreciated, when one considers what the Wildcats had to face.

In marked contrast to Villanova, Georgetown had little basketball tradition, prior to the arrival of John Thompson in 1972. (As an undergraduate, I spent a semester studying at Georgetown, and so I am very familiar with Georgetown's history and traditions.)

First - The perennial question: "What Is A Hoya?"

I will quote the Georgetown media guide:

"In the days when all Georgetown students were required to study Greek and Latin, the University's teams were nicknamed "the Stonewalls". A student, using Greek and Latin terms, started the cheer, "Hoya Saxa", which translates as "What rocks!" The name proved popular and the term Hoyas was eventually adopted for all Georgetown teams.
Georgetown's colors are blue and gray, and the direct inspiration for them was the Civil War. During the war, Georgetown's location on the Potomac river placed it at the border between Union and Confederacy. Maryland and the District of Columbia were part of the Union. But Virginia, across the river, was the most populous and important state of the Confederacy. In addition to its location, many Georgetown alumni, the "sons of Georgetown", had fought for each side. (It was an all-male school at the time.)

In light of those facts, Georgetown decided to adopt blue and gray as its colors: the Union soldiers had worn blue uniforms while many Confederate armies had worn gray. Like the nation, the Georgetown community itself had been divided during the confict. The symbolism was intended as a healing gesture, to reunite after the war.

Thompson, a member of the College Basketball Hall of Fame, is a genuine legend. Due to his success and his powerful personality, he remains one of the best known college basketball coaches in America. However, Thompson's accomplishments are even more remarkable, in light of the Georgetown program which he inherited. Thompson literally constructed the Hoyas' program, brick by brick, for over a quarter of a century.

Georgetown's program is among the oldest in the nation. The Hoyas' first season (four games) was 1906-1907: the Hoyas played nearby George Washington three times, and one against Virginia. The program did enjoy some success during the 1920s, posting some strong records. However, the success predated both the NCAA tournament and the NIT.

Villanova traveled to Georgetown in the Wildcats' second season of play, 1921-22. But the Wildcats fell, 39-34. Surprisingly, due to the close proximity of the schools, the teams would not play again for 23 years!
In 1943, Georgetown qualified for postseason play, for the first time in school history. Led by Elmer Ripley, the Hoyas went 22-5 and qualified for the NCAA tournament, held at New York's Madison Square Garden that year. The talented Mr. Ripley must have been a great coach: at that time, the NCAA tourney invited only eight teams! Georgetown defeated New York University and DePaul to reach the national championship game. But Wyoming whipped the Hoyas, 46-34, to win the national championship. In the consolation game, Georgetown topped Toledo and thus finished in third place.

Unfortunately for Georgetown, its next two seasons were cancelled due to World War II. I speculate that due to the school's DC location, its building was commandeered for military use. For example, in Philadelphia, Penn's Palestra was used for Navy administrative offices. However, no Big Five team's schedule was cancelled due to the war.

After the war ended in 1945, Villanova and Georgetown began a spirited rivalry. Three months after the Japanese surrender, Villanova hosted the Hoyas for the first time. The Wildcats won, 40-37. For the next four years, they played each other twice a season, foreshadowing the twice-a-year rivalry in the BIG EAST. Georgetown swept Villanova in 1947, and the teams split the 1948 series. But Villanova swept the Hoyas, during the next two seasons.

For some reason, the series ended after the 1950 season. Three decades would ensue, before the creation of the BIG EAST in 1980. Surprisingly, the teams played each other only three times, over those 30 years.
In 1953, Georgetown made its first NIT appearance: it was still the era when the NIT was probably more prestigious than the NCAAs. The Hoyas went 13-7, and lost to Louisville in the first round. They wouldn't return to post-season play until 1970, earning another NIT bid and losing in the first round to Louisiana State.
Thompson arrived in DC, taking over for the 1972-73 season. He inherited a moribund Georgetown program, which had gone 3-23 the previous season. Georgetown's "tradition" was a grand total of three post-season appearances: two NIT bids and a NCAA third-place finish.

Naturally, nobody expected that Georgetown would become even a respectable program, let alone a powerhouse. The idea that the Hoyas would become one of the most prominent and successful teams in the nation was utterly absurd. But Thompson was the architect and visionary that made it possible.

In 1975, Thompson's third season, the Hoyas made their first trip to the NCAA tournament in 32 years. While Georgetown lost in the first round, it began one of the most remarkable streaks in college basketball. Since 1975, Georgetown has reached postseason play, every year, to the present day. During that span, Georgetown has received 20 NCAA bids and made six NIT appearances. The Hoyas won the 1984 national championship, and reached the Final Four in 1982 and 1985. Georgetown also has made four trips to the Elite Eight, the most recent in 1996, led by Allen Iverson.

Georgetown was one of the eight original members of the BIG EAST, in 1979-1980. Villanova joined as the ninth team, one year later. Villanova has continued to do well in the BIG EAST. But Villanova has a worse record against Georgetown, in BIG EAST games, than against any of the other eight original members.
That brings us to the miraculous game, on April 1, 1985, when Villanova beat Georgetown and captured the NCAA championship!

That season was the first year that the NCAA tournament consisted of 64 teams, up from 48. At 19-10, it was unclear as to whether Villanova would even receive a bid: the Wildcats received a #8 seed.

There is a consensus among national observers, that Villanova made the most unbelievable, miraculous run of any team in the NCAA tournament, before or since. The Wildcats defeated #9 seed Dayton on Dayton's home floor (teams are no longer permitted to play on their home floor.) Villanova then upset the #1 seed, Michigan, to head for the Sweet 16.

The Wildcats then flew to Birmingham, Alabama, and knocked off ACC powers Maryland and North Carolina. It was Villanova's first Final Four appearance since 1971, when the Wildcats lost to UCLA in the final. (Villanova's games were ultimately forfeited due to Howard Porter signing with an agent, prior to the tournament, rendering him ineligible.)

Two other BIG EAST teams, Georgetown and St. John's, joined 'Nova in Lexington, Kentucky. Villanova surprised Memphis State in the national semifinal, while Georgetown stopped St. John's. Georgetown was considered a virtual lock for the national title. The Hoyas were the defending national champions, and entered the game at 35-2. (Georgetown's only two losses had been to St. John's and Syracuse, by a total of three points.) Moreover, Georgetown had been routinely thrashing 'Nova since the Wildcats had entered the BIG EAST in 1981. The Hoyas had won nine of the eleven games in that span, many by convincing margins.

In 1985, there was only a slight glimmer of hope. Villanova had battled the Hoyas in two close losses that season: a 57-50 loss at Georgetown and a heartbreaking, 52-50 overtime loss at the Spectrum. Nonetheless, nobody other than Rollie and the Wildcats thought that they had a chance to come out on top.
College basketball observers everywhere agree that Villanova played "The Perfect Game," defeating the Hoyas, 66-64, to bring home the national championship to the Main Line! Villanova shot 22-27 from the floor, an unthinkable 78.6%. The Wildcats took only ten shots in the second half, making nine of them.

(At the original composition of this article, prior to the arrival of Jay Wright, I wrote that "I'm surprised that Villanova doesn't have an elaborate display in the Pavilion, regarding that season. There should be more than a single banner." Subsequently, under the Wright regime, a fitting and proper mural of the 1985 national championship team has been added to the ground floor of the Pavilion lobby. Nonetheless, there should be a mini-museum to tell the story. The mural was a good start, but more still needs to be done for proper commemoration.)

The best illustration of Georgetown's stature: Villanova played The Perfect Game - and only won by two!

More recently, there has been another Villanova victory over Georgetown to savor. On January 30 1999, Villanova pulled off a 93-90, double-overtime, miraculous win over Georgetown at the First Union Center. (I attended the game, and it was the most exciting finish that I've ever seen live.) In the second OT, we trailed 90-87, with five seconds to go. Georgetown was at the foul line. After the Hoya missed two shots, Howard Brown hit a three-pointer from the corner to tie the game with one second remaining. Georgetown carelessly inbounded the ball, it was stolen by Brooks Sales, and Jermaine Medley hit a three-pointer at the buzzer to win it...

Another worthwhile note: The Wildcats were the first opponent to play Georgetown at the new MCI (now Verizon) Center, in December 1997 - and won. Since then, they have never lost at Georgetown.

Questions? Comments? Information? You can contact Craig Dimitri at


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Villanova's upset is fully appreciated, when one considers what the Wildcats had to face.

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The Wildcats took only ten shots in the second half, making nine of them.

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