Charles Nailen/The Hoya Brandon Bowman puts up a shot in Georgetown’s NIT Final showdown with St. John’s in April. The Red Storm won, 70-67.

It was a season epitomized by close defeat. The Hoyas lost 12 of their 15 defeats by a margin of less than 10 points – including seven contests by five or fewer. Georgetown managed to put together its longest winning streak of the season, outside its seven-victory start against inferior opponents, to reach the National Invitational Tournament final. Riding high through the tourney’s first four rounds, the Hoyas could not put down a St. John’s team that featured future Los Angeles Clipper arcus Hatten.

Throughout the tumultuous season, Georgetown had one source of consistency: junior forward Mike Sweetney, who led the Hoyas in scoring, rebounding and blocks.

Georgetown began the 2002-03 campaign pounding through its first seven games – all out of conference. The earliest scare came Dec. 5 against South Carolina, when the Hoyas took a two-point edge into halftime. The Gamecocks took advantage of Georgetown fouls and nabbed a three-point lead late in the third, but the Hoyas responded with several defensive stops and went on to an eight-point victory. South Carolina’s leading scorer, Chuck Eidson (18 ppg), was held to just two points.

Three days after Christmas, the Hoyas took their game on the road for the first time to visit Virginia. The contest, a 79-75 defeat, marked the beginning of a trend that would plague Georgetown throughout the season: last-second letdowns.

In front of a national audience at University Hall, Georgetown watched Virginia take a 13-point lead with just six minutes to go. Despite rallying back for a one-point advantage, the Cavaliers struck back with two quick scores to lock up the match – robbing the Hoyas of their eighth straight win.

Georgetown took an easy victory over Virginia Military Institute before traveling to North Carolina for a showdown with No. 1 Duke. And for 24 minutes, the Hoyas matched the Blue Devils blow for blow. Duke was down at the half, 44-41, for the first time of the season.

But Georgetown could not hang on for the last 24 minutes, allowing Duke to pull away on a 19-5 run early in the second half – a run from which the Hoyas did not recover. The Blue Devils climbed to 10-0 with the win; the Hoyas dropped to 8-2.

Then-sophomore guard Tony Bethel prevented Georgetown from losing its conference opener against West Virginia, sinking a three-pointer to send the game to overtime with under two seconds to play. The Hoyas rallied in overtime, taking their only extra-period victory of the season by two points.

It was during this postgame press conference that Craig Esherick erupted at recent officiating, saying: “I will pay a referee to sit in the post and have someone beat the crap out of him and see how he likes it. . I am absolutely sick of the way Mike Sweetney is being treated in this league.”

Esherick got plenty of national media for his outburst, but was not reprimanded by the league. He said he was pleased with the work of the referees despite a 14-point Hoya loss to Seton Hall at the eadowlands.

Georgetown returned home on Jan. 18 to face a St. John’s team propelled by senior Marcus Hatten. With the Hoyas up 69-66 late, Hatten scored seven straight points to hand Georgetown its first loss of the season at MCI Center.

A day later, The Washington Times broke a story that Esherick had signed a contract extension through 2009, though neither Esherick nor Athletic Director Joe Lang would confirm the rumor.

Georgetown won its next game against Rutgers before embarking on a six-game losing streak, knocking its road record to 0-6. The Hoyas lost to No. 2 Pittsburgh by one point, Seton Hall in overtime, Notre Dame in double overtime and UCLA by a single point. The team also lost to soon-to-be national champion Syracuse and last-place Rutgers.

In the midst of the slide, senior Wesley Wilson left the team for reasons that are still unclear. The next day, UCLA, on its longest losing streak since World War II, took Georgetown as its victim in a one-point victory – the Hoyas’ third single-point defeat in five games. And three days later, Georgetown lost to Rutgers, putting it last in the Big East western division, .500 on the season and in its worst skid since 1975.

The talk of disaster and of missing the Big East tournament subsided over the next few games, as Georgetown won over a Virginia Tech missing junior leading scorer Carlos Dixon and then went 3-3 in its final six contests. A particularly painful loss came on arch 1 at home against perennial rival Syracuse, when Riley forced overtime on a last-second shot from beyond the arc. Though Georgetown had led by as many as 12, the Hoyas could not put together any offense in the extra period and were outscored 16-7.

Led by Riley’s 23 points and Mike Sweetney’s 16 rebounds, the Hoyas clinched a Big East tournament berth with a 69-67 win over West Virginia. The team closed out the season on arch 8 in an 86-80 loss to the Fighting Irish at MCI Center that aired on CBS – the last of nine nationally-televised regular season games.

In the first round of the Big East tournament at Madison Square Garden, Georgetown beat Villanova, 46-41. The Hoyas drew the Orangemen in the second round but could not muster a victory in the teams’ third meeting of the season, losing 74-69.

Unlike the year before, Esherick and the Hoyas gladly accepted an NIT bid. Georgetown cruised through the first two rounds with victories over Tennessee and Providence, extending a road winning streak to five games.

The Hoyas staved off ACC foe North Carolina, 79-74, in the quarterfinals. Returning to MSG for the last two rounds of NIT play, Georgetown again got just one win – over Minnesota – before losing, this time to St. John’s.

Reminiscent of many of the Hoyas’ close defeats, Bethel attempted a three-point shot in the final seconds but it was off the mark. The 70-67 win gave the Red Storm their sixth NIT title. In his last effort for the Blue and Gray, Sweetney had 25 points, nine rebounds and six blocked shots.

Of all the losses, none were as painful as the one that began on April 10, when Sweetney announced he was making himself available for the NBA Draft. Just over two months later, the Hoyas’ big man from 2001 to 2003 held up a jersey of the New York Knicks after becoming the sixth Georgetown player in history to be selected in the top 10.

Sweetney finished his career at Georgetown with 1,750 points. He averaged 22.8 points and 10.4 rebounds in his final season.

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