NASHVILLE-Remember the rambunctious kid on the playground? You know, the one who looked like he might have the potential to out-jump, out-run and out-hustle almost anybody – but just wasn’t quite there yet?
That was the GW men’s basketball team Friday night. The No. 12 seeded Colonials stayed within a few points of No. 5 seed Georgia Tech for most of game, but the Yellow Jackets’ talent, experience and maturity eventually prevailed.
When it was over, Tech was the victor, winning the first round NCAA Tournament match-up 80-68 in front of 17,286 announced fans at the Gaylord Entertainment Center. The crowd was mostly bi-partisan, as a fair amount of GW fans turned out for the Colonials’ (22-8) first appearance in the Big Dance since 1999.
The score was a bit deceptive, as one fatal flaw doomed GW and helped the Yellow Jackets (20-11) build a double digit lead down the stretch. The Colonials shot poorly from the free throw line, going 4-for-16 (25 percent).
Still, GW kept plugging, but about midway through the second, the Ramblin’ Wreck turned on the jets at 11 minute mark, as Will Bynum’s hard-driving lay-up and foul shot ignited a 14-2 run that turned a slim 55-54 lead into a 69-56 advantage with 5:52 left. Despite their best efforts, the Colonials could overcome their performance at the line.
Whether it was nerves, bouncy rims or another tangible factor, the Colonials were not making excuses.
“Whenever you go 4-for-16 from the foul line it’s hard to beat anybody in this sport,” junior forward Pops Mensah-Bonsu said. “But you know, they play similar to us, and we welcome that style of play. But I think they got us in the end because we missed 12 foul shots.”
Mensah-Bonsu (15 points, 6 rebounds) led GW scorers and had a strong game offensively, but foul trouble limited his minutes. Tech’s trio of veteran guards each had outstanding performances, as junior Jarrett Jack (20 points) and seniors Bynum (17 points) and B.J. Elder (15 points) powered the Jackets when it mattered most.
After his final his game in a GW uniform, senior guard T.J. Thompson sat quiet with his head resting in his palm. The loss was not easy to take for him, but he was glad he finally got to the tourney after four years. In he and coach Karl Hobbs’ first two years, the Colonials suffered sub-.500 campaigns before putting together an 18-12 season in 2003-04 and a 22-8 record this year.
“I’m overjoyed yet disappointed,” said Thompson, who scored eight points Friday night. “My first two years here we finished last in the league. We were just struggling trying to stay in games with people. Last year we made a big stride by going to the (National Invitation Tournament) and this year we put it all together.”
Aside from Thompson, the Colonials’ core is returning to Foggy Bottom and will most likely be the Atlantic 10 favorites again next year. Experience in the tourney, Hobbs and players said, will help them excel consistently in the future.
“I believe the most important thing for us is to learn how to play with expectations on our shoulders,” said junior forward Mike Hall, who scored 13 points and grabbed nine boards Friday night. “This is the first year we’ve been picked, like, to be a good team. I guess it’ll be the same next year. We’ll know how to handle it, how to execute, how to play mature basketball.”
The Colonials could not execute when it mattered Friday night, although they had their chances early.
Both teams came out racing in the early going, as Mensah-Bonsu (nine points in the first) was too much for senior center Luke Schenscher (two points) to handle. On the first two GW possessions, the forward took nifty lob passes for powerful dunks. While Schenscher had to sit with two early fouls, Tech hit three treys (two by Bynum and one by Elder) to help the Yellow Jackets build an early 13-8 lead.
The Colonials stayed just out of arm’s reach of the Jackets, but went on a 7-1 run to take a short-lived 20-19 lead at 10:51 in the first. Georgia Tech then fired back with a 7-2 spurt of its own to build a 27-21 advantage with 7:28 left before the break. Hobbs’ squad continuously fought back with pressure defense and fast-pace offense, but crippled itself, going 1-for-9 from the free throw line in the first.
Still, Thompson’s trey cut the Tech lead to 36-35 at 1:01 in the first, but sixth-man Isma’il Muhammad’s pair of free-throws and Jack’s driving lay-in extended the Yellow Jackets lead to 40-35 at the break.
After halftime, GW came out hot, going on a quick 8-2 run to open a 43-42 lead at 18:30 in the second. Then, the teams went back and forth, unable to pull away – until Bynum’s lay-in/foul shot combo ignited Tech, which went on its back breaking run midway through the second. After the break, the Jackets shot nearly 54 percent (50 percent for the game) compared to slightly more than 45 percent from GW (44.6 for the game).
“We’re very grateful to get out of this game,” said Georgia Tech coach Paul Hewitt, whose team will face Louisville Sunday. “I thought it was going to be a one possession basketball game, certainly free throws made a difference with that.”