GW’s most challenging opponent so far this season hasn’t been an opponent at all, but rather a combination of two aspects of play: opposing defenses and stagnant shooting.
It’s been a frustrating one-two punch that’s forced the team to battle to even mentally remain in games. And Sunday, once again, an opponent came out in a full-court press against the Colonials, Manhattan trying to halt GW’s transition play with the approach that’s caused the team to stumble of late.
This time, though, GW (4-3) showed that its best response to a tough press is a challenging defense of its own, taking a 67-55 victory over Manhattan in the annual BB&T Classic.
“They’re going to press us, and they’re going to zone us with the way we shoot the ball. So we’ve just got to keep getting better in practice, and we’ve got to keep working on our ball handlers,” Lonergan said.
The Colonials struggled to break through the press and establish a solid offensive presence Sunday. In the first half, the team had 12 turnovers, struggled to even get shots off and couldn’t get any second-chance points, a sign of limited production in the paint. In the second, the team turned it over 11 more times, ending the game with 23 total turnovers.
“We really wanted to get the ball inside and go inside-out. It was tough for us getting the ball over half court, obviously,” Lonergan said. “But we were just trying to get touches in the middle of the court with our big guys.”
Contributing to the challenges in the first were GW’s familiar shooting struggles. The team went through stages of stagnant shooting in the first, finding itself in an early five-point hole before roaring back – four times – to tie the game. The Colonials took the lead on two treys late in the first, only to have its momentum sapped when the Jaspers tied it up at the buzzer off of back-to-back threes of their own.
“We just went into the locker room and tried to focus on executing and really playing like we normally do,” senior guard Lasan Kromah said. “We came back in the second half and got our composure and tried to make a run.”
The offense ran into more trouble early in the second half, when freshman point guard Joe McDonald was forced to sit due to foul trouble just two minutes into the half. The duty of running the offense fell to senior guard Bryan Bynes and freshman guard Kethan Savage, both of whom are more comfortable at the two slot. And then Savage fouled out.
Bynes, despite going 0-for-5, was able to take over, running the offense for large portions of the second half without a turnover.
“He missed easy shots, but at least he gave us some pretty good ball handling and defense. Joe had major foul trouble and was just out of it today, so I thought it was key that Bryan came in and kept his composure,” Lonergan said.
The Colonials were able to hang on for the victory, closing the game with a 44.4 shooting percentage and dishing out roughly the same number of assists in the second as they had in the first. GW pulled away down the stretch, mainly on the strength of the team's free-throw shooting, which was 82.8 percent on the day.
“Tonight, we were great from the line,” Lonergan said. “To finish the game 24 for 29, free throws are so huge, and we made them at BU. Like in all areas of the game, we just have to get more consistent.”
Senior forward Isaiah Armwood was a force in the paint for GW, adding 23 points, nine boards and six blocks. The offense ran through Armwood Sunday afternoon, a sign of their reliance on his presence in the paint. Freshman forward Kevin Larsen joined Armwood in the post, adding eight points and seven boards.
His performance was supplemented by those of Kromah, who had 18 points and four boards and forward Patricio Garino, who had 10 points. Garino drew praise from Lonergan after the game, who said the freshman had a lower ankle injury over the last two weeks and is back to full strength after needing some rest. The team’s production is slowly building as players battle for time, building off of each one another's effort, Lonergan added.
“[Kromah’s] been great. That was four games in a row he shot 50 percent or better from the field. Last year, that wasn’t the case. I’m happy for him, he’s focused on defense, and I think a lot of that is having Patricio and Joe and even Kethan push him for minutes,” Lonergan said. “He’s really responded.”
The Colonials stayed in the game largely because of their defense, which held Manhattan scoreless for long stretches at a time. GW’s heavy-pressure man-to-man and 1-3-1 defenses slowed the Jaspers’ flow, leaving them unable to execute on offense, and the Colonials held Manhattan to just 25 percent shooting in the second. A key was Garino, Lonergan said, who guarded Manhattan’s often-explosive senior guard George Beamon and held him to 3-for-13 shooting.
Overall, the Jaspers shot 33.9 percent on the day. GW’s defense was the true key to the game, posting seven blocks and seven steals, and outrebounding Manhattan 41-27. The discrepancy of the battle on the boards was particularly evident on the defensive, the Colonials pulling down 30 in that category alone.
“The boards were even at halftime, it was pretty disappointing,” Lonergan said. “I just said ‘everybody’s got to get in there and rebound.’ I thought our guards helped, and Isaiah really controlled the game, and Kevin, with our size.”
The victory pulled GW ahead of a .500 record, a valuable win, Lonergan said, as the team continues through non-conference play and heads into league action.