Posted Saturday, Dec. 6, 5:40 p.m.
The GW men’s basketball team let double-digit leads slip away in both Wednesday’s loss at Appalachian State University and Saturday’s match-up with West Virginia University. But the results of both games were very different, as GW fought off the Mountaineers’ comeback to take the opening game of the BB&T Classic, 70-64, at the MCI Center.
The Colonials (5-1) will play for the tournament title Sunday at 5:30 p.m. against No. 24 Gonzaga (5-1), which beat Maryland 82-68 in the second game on Saturday.
GW surrendered leads of 18 and 12 points against the Mountaineers but in the end, the game rested in the hands of freshman Carl Elliott. The guard drove through heavy traffic, got fouled and made an acrobatic lay-in to put his team up 66-62 with 28.6 seconds to play and sealed the game with a made free throw.
“The key to the game is that we stayed poised,” sophomore forward Pops Mensah-Bonsu said. “Coach (Karl Hobbs) said they would make a run. It came, and we just stayed together.”
Mensah-Bonsu and fellow sophomore Mike Hall dominated the glass on both ends of the floor, each grabbing 11 rebounds. As a team, GW out-rebounded West Virginia (2-2) 44-32, which created opportunities for tip-ins and lay-ups off missed jump shots. Mensah-Bonsu took advantage of the inside advantage by scoring a team-high 23 points on 10-of 13 shooting.
“I don’t think there is a team in the country that works harder on rebounding than we do,” West Virginia head coach John Beilein said. “But there isn’t much you can do when a guy can jump like (Mensah-Bonsu) can.”
The Colonials played tough interior defense throughout the first half, building a 29-11 lead while holding West Virginia to only two field goals in the game’s first 10 minutes. The Mountaineers responded with a 12-0 run that cut the lead to six. However, the Colonials ended the half strong, extending their lead to 39-27 on Greg Collucci’s three-pointer as time expired.
The Mountaineers began the second half with a 14-2 run spurred by the inside play of forwards Kevin Pittsnogle and D’or Fischer.
“They’re a good team and they made an adjustment,” GW head coach Karl Hobbs said. “They basically took the ball down and drove right to the basket.”
The Mountaineers took a 45-43 with under 12 minutes to play before the two teams traded baskets until the game’s final few minutes.
Seven Colonials played 18 minutes or more but junior Tamal Forchion was not one of them. Forchion was not in the starting lineup for the first time this season and played only one minute in the game. Junior Rock Battistoni, who had played only seven minutes all season prior to Saturday, started in his place but played only six minutes himself.
“I woke up this morning and said, ‘I think I’ll start Rock today,'” Hobbs said. “I like the fact that he’s a more experienced guy.”
Hobbs declined to answer repeated questions about the status of Forchion, who actually has one more year of experience than Battistoni and was expected to be a major factor for GW this year. Battistoni played one season for Division III St. Lawrence University before transferring to GW last year. He had two points and one rebound in the game.