AMHERST, Mass. – “This is it.”
The words were written in black marker on Mike Hall’s shoes during the GW men’s basketball team’s first-round Atlantic 10 Tournament game at Massachusetts Monday. The same thoughts were in the minds of all his teammates.
The Colonials (12-16) had not won a conference road game all season and were headed to face a program that had not lost a first-round tournament game in 11 seasons. Their lone senior and leading scorer was sick as a dog. A win would send the Colonials to Dayton, Ohio, for a quarterfinal game against Xavier. A loss would end their season.
This was “it,” but thanks to a record-breaking 23-point performance by Chris Monroe and clutch performances by T.J. Thompson and Mike Hall in GW’s 85-74 victory over UMass, “it” would not be the end.
The Colonials will advance to face No. 10 (Associated Press) Xavier Thursday in a 12:05 p.m. match-up at the U. Dayton Arena in Dayton, Ohio. And this time, the cards are stacked against GW even higher than they were in Monday’s deck.
Defending A-10 Champion Xavier (24-4) has lost only four games all season and is riding a 15-game winning streak. National Player of the Year candidate David West has already earned two consecutive A-10 Player of the Year awards and, with season averages of 20.4 points and 11.9 rebounds per game, is headed for a third this season.
A win will advance the Colonials, the only charter member of the A-10 never to win the tournament, to the semifinals. A loss will send them home. And it is this situation, GW head coach Karl Hobbs said, that gives his team its biggest edge.
“About two weeks ago, we said we’re going to approach every game like it was our last game, just so we could start to get mentally prepared … and I think we’ve been getting some pretty good results,” he said after Monday’s win. “It’s a wonderful opportunity to play (Xavier) in a one-and-done situation.”
Ironically enough, it was a 71-70 loss to Xavier March 1 that spurred this new philosophy for the Colonials. After climbing back from a 10-point deficit to gain a 70-69 advantage with six seconds remaining, GW seemed to hold Xavier on its last possession, forcing West to tip in a missed shot after time had expired. For a brief moment, the buff and blue had the upset, but a review of the last play showed West did get a hand on the ball with a tenth of a second remaining. Xavier was awarded the win, and the jubilant Colonials dropped to the court in tears.
“I think the best thing that happened to us was losing to Xavier, particularly in the manner in which we lost that game,” Hobbs said. “That was one of the best lessons my team could have learned. Very rarely do you get to experience the joy of winning and the misery of defeat, and we were able to experience that all at one time. I used it as a teaching tool and told the guys, ‘We have to play every game with that kind of commitment.'”
Since then, the Colonials beat Fordham at home on senior day, beat Massachusetts for their first conference road win and saw their team leader break a 47-year-old career scoring record, a pattern that Hobbs said gives his team a “great deal of momentum” heading to Dayton.
Momentum is about all they will have ,though. GW is 0-5 on the season against top 25 teams, including two losses to Xavier. Before the March 1 loss, the Colonials dropped a home game to the Musketeers Feb.4, 80-68. While they have been somewhat successful controlling the big man, West (36 points in two contests), it has been Xavier’s guards that have hurt them. Freshman Dedrick Finn and senior Lionel Chalmers combined for 32 points on 11-for-22 shooting in the February loss, while it was Chalmers and junior guard Romain Sato who hurt the Colonials in March, combining for 35 points on 13-for-24 shooting.
Still, Hobbs said, with the way his team has been playing, anything is possible.
“We’ve been playing terrific basketball for the past two weeks,” Hobbs said. “I think we’ll be nice and loose. We’re exited and we can’t wait to play (this) game.”