No referee or video replay could overturn this one. Playing in front of the largest Smith Center crowd in more than a year, the GW men’s basketball team earned possibly its biggest win this season, winning by its largest margin of victory in over two years.
The Colonials (11-7, 5-2 Atlantic 10) beat Xavier 81-60 Wednesday night in front of 4,021 raucous fans to remain undefeated at home this season and break a five-game losing streak against the Musketeers (10-8, 2-4 A-10).
One of those losses came last year when referees reversed their initial call and counted a Xavier tip-in at the buzzer, but Wednesday’s game appeared to be in GW’s hands by early in the second half.
GW Head Coach Karl Hobbs said the win, along with the team’s second-place standing in the A-10 West, represents another step in the program’s development.
“Obviously I’m excited for our program. I’m excited for the University and the direction we’re headed,” he said. “It’s great for me as a coach to have an administration that understands the patience and not wanting a quick fix. We know the reality of a quick fix because we had a little taste of a quick fix.”
Junior T. J. Thompson scored 17 of his game-high 19 points in the second half, as GW led by as many as 28 during the final 20 minutes. The guard said the entire team was eager to finally beat one of its biggest rivals.
“(The win) has more meaning just because of the way it ended last year,” Thompson said. “We played hard down at their place for 40 minutes and then to lose with one-tenth of a second, that really hurts. So we had a lot of fire coming into today’s game.”
Sophomore Pops Mensah-Bonsu supplied that fire with 14 points off the bench, 12 of which came on emphatic dunks. Freshman Carl Elliott (15 points, nine rebounds and four assists) was cool and composed at point guard, complementing Thompson in the backcourt as he has much of the season. Sophomore Mike Hall was the fourth Colonial to score in double figures, adding 15 points and eight rebounds.
“It really is the vision, the basketball intelligence and the decision-making of T.J. that makes that whole thing go,” Hobbs said. “I attribute some of these gray hairs to T.J. last year, but this year when he’s got the ball in his hands and he’s going 90 miles per hour, I just sit back and enjoy what’s going to happen at the end.”
Thompson said having Elliott as a true point guard has allowed him to flourish as a scoring guard.
“I enjoy playing with him because it takes a lot off me,” he said. “His creative ability is just exceptional.”
Elliott used that ability to score the team’s first five points, but the game remained close early in the first half. There were nine lead changes and four ties in the game’s first seven minutes, but a Mensah-Bonsu dunk with 13:52 remaining in the half gave GW the lead for good. The Colonials’ defense held the Musketeers to under 35 percent shooting to take a 40-30 lead at halftime.
In the second half, GW’s defense continued to smother Xavier and its leading scorer, senior Romain Sato, who finished with just nine points. The only player to score in double figures for the Musketeers was senior Lionel Chalmers (21 points), as the team shot less than 36 percent for the game.
Hobbs said the Colonials showed a degree of maturity by keeping up their defensive intensity after leading by 20 with more than 10 minutes still left in the game.
“I was concerned about the team’s maturity and getting to that point where they can’t get comfortable and relax,” Hobbs said. “In college basketball, no lead is safe because the three-point line (is so close that) it’s so easy to make that shot.”
It wasn’t until the buzzer sounded that the Colonials did relax, as they ran up into the student section of the arena to celebrate with their classmates. After the game, Hobbs and players seemed cautious about showing their excitement about the win and their success in conference play this season.
“I’m too nervous to look too far ahead in the future,” Hobbs said. “I’m too nervous to look to the side. I’m too nervous to look to my right or my left. I just want to look directly in front of me. I don’t want these young guys to get too excited. We don’t want to embrace success because that’s dangerous, and we’re not good enough to embrace success.”
He continued, “Something was written earlier that bothered me for a long time. It was written that we weren’t smart enough to be winners. That really bothered me for a long time. I couldn’t sleep; that really troubled me … I’m excited and I’m really happy for these young guys.”
The Colonials will look to take what Hobbs’ called their next step – winning conference road games – Saturday at Richmond in a 2 p.m. game on ESPN2.