The GW men’s basketball team had never beaten two ranked opponents in back-to-back games – until Sunday.
On consecutive days over the weekend, the Colonials knocked off No. 9 (ESPN/USA Today coaches’ poll) Michigan State University 96-83 and No. 12 University of Maryland 101-92 to capture the 10th annual BB&T Classic at the MCI Center.
On Sunday, in front of 13,343 fans, Tournament Most Valuable Player T.J. Thompson scored 27 points to lift GW past the Terrapins, the clear crowd favorite. The weekend wins drew national attention to the resurgence of a GW program that had suffered three straight losing seasons before finishing 18-12 last year. The feat also puts GW in contention to crack the Top 25 rankings Monday for the first time since 1998.
Colonials coach Karl Hobbs experienced the first wins over ranked teams in his four-year tenure at GW. Citing the team’s ultimate goal of reaching the NCAA Tournament, however, Hobbs downplayed the importance of the victories after each game.
“The measuring stick of this basketball team will be at the end of the day,” he said. “By that I mean (whether we are) in a room somewhere sitting around waiting for our names to be (selected into the NCAA Tournament). That’s our goal and our focus. We took a step closer to our goal and our dream.”
Since opening the season at then-No. 2 Wake Forest University, the Colonials (5-1) have gone on a five-game winning streak, which Hobbs attributed to better overall team play.
“One simple word: together,” Hobbs said when asked what the team’s biggest improvement has been. “I really felt that we didn’t play team basketball at Wake. We didn’t team rebound, defense, or box out. Now our hearts were in the right place. Our minds weren’t in the right place then.”
On Sunday, the Colonials’ well-balanced offense helped build an early advantage. The Terrapins (4-2) jumped out to an early 5-2 lead on a three-point shot by Nik Caner-Medley. A two minute dry-spell was broken by a T.J. Thompson three-pointer that tied the game at five. Thompson was 5-for-7 from beyond the arc for the game.
The Colonials’ offense clicked early on, as they built a 28-17 lead with less than 10 minutes to go in the first half. Maryland fought back, cutting the lead to four points six times before GW extended the lead to eight at halftime.
The Terrapins’ second-half effort was much stronger. They used full-court pressure to frustrate the Colonials into five turnovers. In the first six minutes of the second half, Maryland went on a 17-9 run to take a 58-57 lead. It was the last time GW would trail.
Down by one, the Colonials went on a spurt of their own. With the game tied at 60 with 13:23 left, GW went on a 14-5 run that extended the lead to 74-65 with less than 10 minutes to go.
The Colonials weathered several Maryland runs down the stretch, as the Terps cut the lead to 83-82 with 3:57 left. However, junior Omar Williams hit a three-pointer 20 seconds later to open an 86-82 lead. After that hoop, the Colonials’ lead never dipped below three.
Maryland’s John Gilchrist added 10 of his 23 points in the last 11 minutes of the game but was less effective on defense, as the Colonials had an answer for every key Maryland basket. Junior J.R. Pinnock, an all-tournament selection, had 22 points and three steals. Pinnock also grabbed four rebounds, only to be topped by Mike Hall’s six and Omar Williams’ seven.
Although the Colonials’ game plan against the Spartans was to get Mensah-Bonsu touches down low, the six-foot-nine-inch forward did not score until 10 minutes into the game against Maryland. Perimeter jump-shooting instead proved to be the key, as 11 of the Colonials’ first 13 points were around the perimeter. GW had six first-half three pointers, three by Thompson.
“We didn’t play hard enough in the first half,” Maryland head coach Gary Williams said. “GW is too aggressive with the ball. If you don’t play hard, they’re going to get good looks, drives, lay-ups. The intensity level, GW had it more than us in the first half. That had a lot to do with them shooting better than us.”
Free throws plagued the Terrapins, as they went 14-for-28 from the line while the Colonials shot more than 70 percent, slightly below their season average of 77 percent.
“We are trying to be the best we can be,” Hobbs said. “Obviously it’s a tremendous win. We’ve gained a great deal of respect and people enjoy watching the effort these kids exert. We still have a long way to go. We have a very tough league.”
The Colonials will have the week off before traveling to St. Francis (Pa.) Saturday for a 7 p.m. game.
GW 96, Michigan State 83
The GW men’s basketball team displayed intensity, discipline and control on in a 96-83 upset of No. 9 Michigan State University Saturday at the MCI Center.
The Colonials’ high-powered offense produced the second 90-point game of the season. GW’s trapping defense helped force 22 Spartan turnovers in a contest that turned out to be very one-sided down the stretch. GW’ s lead never dipped below six points in the second half.
Junior forward Pops Mensah-Bonsu had one of the best all-around games of his career, scoring a game-high 23 points and holding preseason All-American Paul Davis to seven points and four rebounds. Mensah-Bonsu set the pace early in the game by swatting a Michigan State shot into the stands and scoring four points in the first five minutes.
“I knew coming out that if I started out very aggressive, my teammates were going to take on that type of tempo,” Mensah-Bonsu said. “If we stayed aggressive I knew we were going to have a good chance to win the game.”
Mensah-Bonsu, who has been stymied by stronger opponents in past losses against ranked teams, did not let the six-foot-eleven-inch Davis stop him.
“I made it my goal, coming into this year, to gain a little bit of weight so when I play against those teams it won’t affect my style of play,” Mensah-Bonsu said.
A major part of the Colonials’ strategy was to use physicality and get the ball inside, Hobbs added.
“I felt that a large part of our offense was to establish our inside presence,” he said. “Pops played an outstanding game and in order to have success we had to be able to score inside.”
GW went into halftime leading 49-38, and the second half brought more of the same, as GW answered each MSU offensive burst with a run of its own. The Spartans, a strong rebounding team, were limited to 15 second-chance points, which Hobbs said was integral to GW’s win.
“They are a tremendous scoring basketball team,” Hobbs said. “The other thing is that they have been traditionally in the top 10 in the country in rebounding. The big emphasis for us was not to allow them to get second shots.”
Senior T.J. Thompson had a strong game, scoring 18 points while covering MSU’s Kevin Torbert, who scored a season-low three points.
“I’m extremely disappointed, to say the least, with the way we played,” Michigan State coach Tom Izzo said. “I thought (George Washington) played harder and they wanted it more and I’m embarrassed to say that.”