AMHERST, MASS. – As the seconds ticked down Saturday in the Mullins Center, another Colonial game was coming down to the wire.
But this time, it was GW that had the narrow three-point lead on the line. The pressure of a final possession was on the other team’s shoulders, and the momentum – the sheer will to shake off past frustrations and pull out a victory – was on the Colonials’ side.
It was an anticlimactic win. A pair of Isaiah Armwood free throws, a Dwayne Smith steal as the Minutemen tried for one last shot, and the final buzzer sounded on the Colonials’ 79-76 victory.
“We’ve had so many [frustrating losses]. I think we finally got the monkey off our backs,” freshman guard Joe McDonald said.
Up seven at halftime, GW (8-9, 2-2 A-10) earned its lead through resilient play and success at the charity stripe.
The Colonials went 10-for-13 from the free throw line in the first half, pushing them ahead of the Minutemen, who only made it to the line once before the break. McDonald was the leading free throw shooter for GW, making 10 of 13 over play, and said getting to the line was a priority for him heading into the contest.
“In the scouting report, it showed that their guards tend to foul a lot. So I knew I would be able to draw a couple just from them guarding me,” McDonald said.
Despite turning the ball over 10 times, GW controlled the tempo of the game in the first half, forcing the Minutemen to commit 12 turnovers that the Colonials turned into 16 points.
Massachusetts exerted more control after the break, but not enough to sway the final tally in its favor. The Colonials shot 49.1 percent for the game, fighting through scoring stalls to hold onto a narrow margin of victory.
At the game’s close, GW had 21 assists – a sign that the offense clicked Saturday afternoon. McDonald was responsible for almost half of those, tallying his first career double-double with 16 points and 10 assists. It was a signal that the Colonials had settled down on offense despite the Minutemen’s shifting press defense.
“I just wanted to run the offense. I don’t think we can go wrong if we do that,” McDonald said. “So regardless of who is on who, I just tried to look for where the mismatch was and take advantage of it.”
The Colonials’ bench was one of the team’s most valuable assets against Massachusetts. Adding 35 total points, it was paced by senior forward Dwayne Smith and senior guard Lasan Kromah, who added 15 and 14 points, respectively. Smith also pulled down five boards and had three steals, while Kromah added six rebounds to his stat line.
Joining them in double figures was freshman forward Patricio Garino, with 12 points, four boards and four steals. Senior forward Isaiah Armwood stuffed the stat sheet with eight points, seven boards and five assists.
“Lasan scored early today, and Dwayne. That’s what they’re supposed to do, they’re scorers, and we just have to get more consistent with our scoring, with our upperclassmen coming off the bench,” head coach Mike Lonergan said. “Lasan got off to a good start and Dwayne had some key baskets when we broke their pressure in the second half.”
GW spent most of the first half in a man-to-man defense, cracking down on the hot-handed Massachusetts backcourt. Along with their opportunities at the line, and a sizeable advantage on the boards, the Colonials entered the break with a seven-point advantage.
But the Minutemen came crawling back in the second, evening the rebounding battle at 35-34.
“They probably got yelled at in the locker room, telling them to go more aggressive and harder toward the glass,” Smith said. “That was what was showing. They increased the pressure with the rebounding, but when we see that, we just have to respond and work harder.”
GW found itself staring down a Massachusetts team that was hanging around with a better inside game and the resurgence of redshirt junior guard Chaz Williams, who finished with 18 points.
They were trying to rattle the Colonials, Smith said, but the key for his team was to stay composed under the pressure.
GW switched from a man to a zone defense in order to contain Williams, Lonergan said, but the team was punished with his accuracy from a three-point range.
“I just think we really didn’t do a good job with their point guard. At one point, we were trying to take his drives away, but at the end, we were trying to take his threes away, and he came down and just got our point guard back on his heels,” Lonergan said. “He’s not an easy matchup for anybody, but we wanted to try to get the ball out of his hands.”
Ultimately, the Colonials held on down the stretch, sinking key free throws over the final few minutes of play to cement their narrow win.
While it was neither a blowout nor a pretty win, it was an important first road victory for a GW team that faces a tough Atlantic 10 conference this season.