PHILADELPHIA – With a first round bye in the Atlantic 10 Tournament riding on Saturday’s game at La Salle, GW men’s basketball coach Karl Hobbs made an unprecedented decision. He didn’t start T. J. Thompson for the first time in the junior guard’s three-year career, replacing him instead with freshman J.R. Pinnock.
The move not only worked for Thompson, its intended target, but benefited Pinnock as well, as each player scored 23 points to lead the Colonials over the Explorers, 87-72, before 1,678 fans at Tom Gola Arena.
Afterwards, Hobbs explained the motivation behind his surprise maneuver.
“I wanted to take some pressure off (Thompson),” he said. “He was really struggling with his shot, and I thought not starting today would take some pressure off him. Thank God it worked.”
In GW’s last two games, losses to Xavier and Richmond, Thompson shot a combined 5-for-24 from the field, scoring a total of 14 points. On Saturday, he went 9-for-12, including 4-for-6 from behind the three-point line to amass his 23 points. He also had five rebounds and five assists.
“I was struggling and not performing the way I need to, so I took (the benching) as nothing personal, but as the will for coach to have me perform better,” Thompson said. “So I’m kind of thankful he did it because it woke me up, kind of.”
Thompson’s reaction to a move that could have upset some players prompted Hobbs to praise his point guard after the game.
“I give him a lot of credit. He stayed poised, he never got rattled, he never let it bother him. Winning was more important than anything else today and that’s how he approached the game.”
GW needed the victory to clinch the No. 2 seed out of the A-10 West going into this week’s conference tournament. The top two seeds from each division receive a first round bye, an advantage GW has not earned since the 2000 tournament.
Had the Colonials lost, they could have slipped to the third or fourth seed. Hobbs said his team was well aware of its situation.
“They knew how important the game was,” he said. “If we win, we’re in second. If we lose, we can be fourth and then anything can happen. We knew our future was in our hands.”
That future was all but determined by halftime, as the Colonials (17-10, 11-5 A-10) went to the locker room with a 52-33 lead over La Salle (10-19, 5-11 A-10). The game had been close with seven minutes left in the half and GW clinging to a 29-24 lead, but Pinnock hit back-to-back three-pointers and then completed a three-point play with a lay-up and free throw. Those nine points started what would become an 18-2 Colonials run.
Pinnock’s 23 points broke his previous career high of 21, as he went 8-for-14 from the field. Sophomore Pops Mensah-Bonsu added 16 points and nine rebounds, while sophomore Omar Williams scored seven of his 13 points from the free throw line.
“Anytime T.J. shoots the ball like he did today, we are a different basketball team,” Hobbs said. “And anytime Pops gets 16 points like that, we become a special team.”
The Colonials extended their lead into the twenties for much of the second half. The Explorers only made the score close by ending the game on a 10-2 run. Sophomore Steven Smith led La Salle with 26 points and 12 rebounds and sophomore Gary Neal scored 14 points.
As a team, La Salle shot 38.3 percent for the game and made 9-of-22 three-pointers. GW shot 60 percent from the field, its third best performance of the season, and made 9-of-16 three pointers.
“Our shots were good, but our game starts with our defense,” Thompson said. “When we defend and rebound the ball and then run, we can pretty much hang with anybody.”
As GW dominated both ends of the floor, they were loudly cheered by a large contingent of Colonials fans who made the trip from D.C. With La Salle on its spring break, GW students turned Tom Gola Arena into Smith Center North, easily outnumbering the La Salle student section.
“It was kind of nice to walk in the gym and have the fans waiting for us, cheering us on in warm-ups,” Hobbs said. “That was really refreshing and without question helped us a tremendous amount.”
The A-10 Tournament starts Wednesday in Dayton, Ohio, but the Colonials won’t start playing until Thursday at 2 p.m., when they will face the winner of West No. 6 seed La Salle and East No. 3 seed Rhode Island. GW beat La Salle twice this year and defeated Rhode Island at home in their only match-up.