Charles Nailen/The Hoya Rutgers handed Georgetown a tough loss on Tuesday, the team’s sixth straight.

Craig Esherick’s hand signals have become an identifying symbol of Georgetown basketball. But the next time he holds up two open hands, he will be counting the number of losses his team has dropped since opening the year 7-0.

The Hoyas’ last victory had come against the Scarlet Knights at MCI Center on Jan. 20, so fans hoped for the best before a Tuesday rematch with Rutgers. But in what has come to be Georgetown’s signature style, the team played a close match only to fall apart in the waning minutes. When all was said and done, the scoreboard read 66-59 and the Hoyas had been handed their sixth consecutive loss, dropping the team to .500 for the first time since Esherick’s rookie year as head coach.

Most importantly, Georgetown replaced Rutgers as the worst team in the West Division of the Big East – a distinction which, if it sticks until March, will find the Hoyas left out in the cold when conference tournament time comes.

The Knights took advantage of the lack of big scorers on the opposing bench, double- and triple-teaming junior forward Mike Sweetney in an attempt to force his teammates to take long shots. This defensive strategy limited Georgetown’s access to the hoop, allowing few layups and easy shots. Consequently, the Hoyas’ power forward often found himself dancing among and around opponents in the paint, anxiously awaiting passes but never receiving them. He nevertheless managed to get 22 points and 11 rebounds, giving him his 32nd career double-double. Only four of those points came in the last 11 minutes of the game.

On the other side of the ball, Rutgers spread out the court and allowed all nine players who saw playing time to notch points for the team. Sophomore guard Ricky Shields led the Knights with 12 points; junior forward Sean Axani and senior guard Jerome Coleman both had 11. Axani’s performance was only his second double-digit scoring show of the season and the third of his career. He also set a career-high with five blocks against the Hoyas. Rutgers’ bench contributed 19 points.

The teams had a combined 49 personal fouls, sending Georgetown to the line 37 times and Rutgers on 26 occasions. Though no players fouled out, the Knights had four players with four fouls apiece as Hoya freshman forward Brandon Bowman, senior forward Victor Samnick and sophomore guard Tony Bethel each matched that mark. Sweetney, whose foul trouble had caused problems in the past, went unblemished until well into the second half.

Turnovers were the story of the match. The Hoyas committed 17 turnovers that were converted into 19 points by their opponents. eanwhile, the Knights exercised ball control and gave up possession only eight times during the contest.

Both teams came out sluggish, as loose balls rolled across the floor and passes sailed through the hands of Hoyas and Knights alike. In the first twenty minutes, Rutgers made 40 percent of its shots and Georgetown converted only 25 percent of the time. At the midway point of the first half, the score was just 11-10 in favor of the host.

Sweetney, who was held scoreless for the first 10:30, put on the first offensive show of the evening by scoring nine consecutive points for the Hoyas. But after going 3-for-4 from the floor and 2-for-2 from the line, Sweetney and his team ran out of juice and scored only five more free throws in the remaining six minutes of the first half.

At one point, Georgetown held a four-point margin over its opponent, but a 10-2 Rutgers run propelled by Shields and Axani closed out the half, giving the Knights a 27-23 lead of their own to take into the locker room. For the Hoyas, it was the poorest first-half showing of the season.

The second half displayed some promise as Georgetown opened with eight quick points, giving the Hoyas the largest edge in the contest to that point. Coleman and Shields answered back with a three-pointer and a layup, respectively, but junior forward Gerald Riley took the team back down the court and earned five of the Hoyas’ next seven points on a layup and three free throws. Riley was 5-for-6 from the charity stripe and second to Sweetney with 19 points on the day.

The Hoyas hoped to keep their 39-32 lead going but Rutgers put up nine points in the next three minutes. Finally, Sweetney interrupted the scoring spree with a layup, but Georgetown could muster no more and watched the contest slip back into a tie, this time at 41.

With the end of regulation just 10 minutes away, the game switched into give-and-take mode for the first time. The ball moved back and forth on the court, though neither team could pick up any momentum because of fouls on practically every other possession. Though Axani scored six straight points for the Knights and Riley punctuated the series with a trey, neither team was successful at forging an advantage of more than three and the teams found the game in a 53-all deadlock with just under four minutes to play.

Sweetney followed a free throw by freshman forward Adrian Hill with an easy deuce, giving the Hoyas what was to become their final lead of the game.

The imminent meltdown was evident on the next scoring play. Shields brought the ball across half-court and put up a bomb from well outside the arc. The shot sailed through the net, exciting the crowd and putting Georgetown in a two-point deficit.

The Hoyas got a break on the next play. Sophomore guard Drew Hall put up an ugly three-point attempt – as the team is prone to do late in the game – but got fouled in the act. Hall made two of three from the line, knotting the game at 57.

Sweetney’s second foul of the game and a Coleman jumper gave Rutgers a three-point edge. After Georgetown raced back the length of the court, Samnick made one of two foul shots to close the gap to 60-58. Junior guard Mike Sherrod held the ball to run down the clock with 40 seconds remaining. Riley, defending Sherrod, nearly came away with a steal that would have led to an easy breakaway, but was instead called for a foul. Sherrod’s two successes at the line put the game out of reach, though the Hoyas committed two more offenses before the clock showed 0:00.

Georgetown has lost eight of its last nine games and has suffered defeat in three of its last four trips to the Louis Brown Athletic Center. Its seven league losses match the number from last season, when the team finished third in the Big East West Division with a 9-7 conference record.

Despite the absence of success, media sources still consider Sweetney one of the nation’s prominent forwards. Riley, who follows Sweetney in per game scoring, has been equally impressive, shooting 89.4 percent from the line – a feat that puts him 21st in the NCAA.

With the season seemingly in a freefall, the Hoyas will be hard-pressed to make something out of their remaining seven games. The trends, however, are not on their side. They will play three away games, but are 0-7 away from MCI Center. And they will play three matches against nationally-ranked teams to whom they lost earlier this year – once by a margin of eight and twice by a single-point spread.

By this logic, a Feb. 25 visit from Providence may offer the only chance at some redemption. An 11-16 finish would be the team’s worst ending since 1972, the last year before the exalted John Thompson took over head coaching responsibilities from Jack Magee.

By that point, too many fans may be demanding Esherick’s head to concern themselves with the dates and the exact numbers.

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