On the road again, Colonials edge UMass

All season long for the GW men’s basketball team, what’s supposed to happen rarely has.

Whether it was a win over Maryland or a loss to Duquesne, the Colonials have consistently redefined the improbable. And even when they seemed to be headed in only one direction, they went and lost to La Salle.

But this week, with GW facing two basically must-win road games, the Colonials did something few would have dared to predict – they won both, capped by an 88-87 victory Tuesday night at UMass (15-13, 9-6 A-10). The Colonials were able to overcome a late seven-point UMass lead to notch the victory.

Two months ago, GW lost eight of 10, but with the win, the Colonials have now won nine of 11, exorcising many of the demons from that dismal winter break. With this successful five-day road trip, GW may have also finally put their road patsy reputation to rest.

After only two road wins and eight mostly listless road losses, the Colonials stormed into two foreign buildings this week and led in both games most of the way. Playing Senior Night spoilers for the second consecutive game, the Colonials again looked like they belonged.

They’re a little more experienced, Coach Tom Penders said. I think it’s all about experience.

Tuesday night’s win in front of 5,430 at the Mullins Center in Amherst, Mass., was all the more improbable considering the Minutemen grabbed 18 more rebounds, attempted 10 more shots and watched GW miss 15 free throws. And the Minutemen were no pushovers, either. They entered the game with a better A-10 record than the Colonials, were coming off a loss, had not lost consecutive A-10 games all season and were playing for a first-round A-10 Tournament bye. But the Colonials ignored the multitude of negatives and rode freshman guard SirValiant Brown’s 35 points to a victory that may ensure them their own first-round bye.

Boston native sophomore forward Jason Smith had another hot start Tuesday, scoring six of GW’s first 10 points. Despite three three-pointers in the first six minutes by senior guard Monty Mack, GW stayed close and pulled ahead 32-29 on a long Brown three-pointer with eight minutes left in the first half.

Despite the Colonials’ poor rebounding and free-throw shooting in the first, they continued to pour it on the Minutemen, and forced Mack, senior forward Chris Kirkland and junior guard Jonathan DePina into picking up their third fouls. After a quick run that began and ended with Brown threes and broke open a tight game, the Colonials led 49-40 with less than two minutes left in the first. At the half, UMass had pulled within 52-48.

Brown led the Colonials with a 4-of-7 three-point performance in the first. He and freshman Chris Monroe both had 13 points at the half.

More solid GW play in the second continued to overcome a general inability to rebound, and one jaw-dropping Brown play after another provided the scoring GW needed.

After UMass finally closed the gap with 14 minutes left in the game, neither team could build more than a two-point lead until a UMass run pushed its lead to 78-71. Then sophomore guard Shannon Crooks made the first of his several key errors down the stretch.

Crooks palmed the ball with just under six minutes left, and then DePina fouled Brown, picking up his fifth. Brown made both free throws, then forced UMass into a backcourt violation. Monroe, who had six offensive rebounds, put back junior guard Mike King’s miss. After two UMass free throws, King put back a Brown miss while being fouled.

UMass then rebounded another miss and after hitting two free throws seemed to be back in control, leading 82-78 with three minutes left. GW then turned the ball over and Crooks took it coast-to-coast for the easy two. But he tried to dunk it, the ball hit the rim and another King putback at the other end made it 82-80, UMass.

Then, in a move Penders would call strategic, Monroe fouled poor free throw shooter Mike Babul near halfcourt with two minutes left. He missed both shots. At the other end, Brown shook his defender with a crossover and pulled up for a three-point attempt that hit the rim, bounced high in the air and swished in for the 83-82 GW lead.

Junior guard Bernard Barrow stole the ball after a UMass timeout, and Brown drove in for two. Barrow then went down after getting hit in the head on the next possession while Mack drained a long two. Brown then turned it over, but a Mack running attempt at taking the lead missed with 23 seconds left. Brown grabbed the board, but made only one free throw after being fouled.

Crooks then penetrated the lane and set up what appeared to be an easy UMass dunk for the tie. But Crooks ran over junior forward Antxon Iturbe and was called for a charge. Brown then made one free throw, ending his seven-point run, and Mack missed a tying three-point attempt at the other end. Kirkland followed with a layup with two seconds left. It was too late, though, as King was fouled, missed his first free throw, then missed the second on purpose as time ran out on the Minutemen.

They did what they had to do down the stretch, Penders said.

Brown’s 35 points set a record for an opposing player at the eight-year-old Mullins Center. His 22 second-half points set a record for all players, and he tied the opponents’ records with his five three-pointers and his 11 three-point attempts.

He is now 27 short of the GW record for points in a season (723). His average has risen to 24.9, just short of Fresno State University’s Courtney Alexander, who has a 25.0 average. The race for the scoring title does not end at the end of the regular season, though. The NCAA does not stop counting games until the national championship is decided. Fresno State is favored right now to make the NCAA Tournament.

The Colonials have now risen two games over .500 for the first time all season, and it couldn’t come at a better time. With the win, the Colonials clinched a winning record in the A-10, the .500 record they’ll need to qualify for the NIT, and at least a tie in the race for the A-10 Tournament bye. Virginia Tech (14-14, 7-8 A-10) has been eliminated from second-place contention. Xavier (18-10, 8-7 A-10) lost Wednesday night 65-64 at St. Bonaventure, meaning the Colonials (15-13, 9-6 A-10) are now a game up on the Musketeers with one to play. The Colonials host No. 5 Temple Saturday with the opportunity to clinch the bye. If GW falls and Xavier can top St. Joseph’s at home Sunday, the two teams will be tied. In that case, none of the tiebreakers would work and the fate of the bye (which the Colonials will need to have a realistic shot at winning the A-10 Tournament) will be settled with a coin toss.

With their NIT eligibility ensured, the Colonials will now concentrate on making themselves more attractive to that tournament. Quite obviously, this Saturday’s game with No. 5 Temple is a golden opportunity for another improbable GW performance. But if there were ever a good time to play the Owls, this season finale in a sold-out Smith Center with a national TV audience might not be it.

Well, because they got beat (by St. Joseph’s Tuesday), Penders said. Good teams normally don’t lose two in a row. It’s a bad time to play them.

I hope our fans get on the refs, not them. Because when they get mad, they get really good. I’m serious about that – let them sleep.

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