Will Dempster: For GW, big man is key

PHILADELPHIA
On a team usually marked by its balance, the gargantuan effort of one player was the difference between a win and a loss in the Colonials’ 64-62 triumph over Saint Joseph’s on Saturday.

With GW trailing 62-61 and under a minute to play, senior Pops Mensah-Bonsu fielded a post pass from junior Carl Elliott and converted a layup to put the Colonials ahead for good. The game-winning shot punctuated a 21-point, nine-rebound performance in which Mensah-Bonsu went to the foul line an incredible 19 times.

Although his quiet performance during a large portion of the season had draft experts questioning his chances of competing in the NBA, Mensah-Bonsu’s reawakening is absolutely crucial for the Colonials as they attempt to compete deep into the March.

On a day when the Colonials shot an atrocious 38 percent from the floor and 27 percent from behind the arc, Mensah-Bonsu put the team on his back. Although he only converted 11 of his 19 attempts from the charity stripe, Pops’ quickness and athleticism in the lane limited the effectiveness of the Hawks’ post players who quickly found themselves in foul trouble.

“You have to be some kind of player to get 19 free-throws, so I’ll leave it at that,” Saint Joseph’s head coach Phil Martelli said when asked about Mensah-Bonsu’s performance. “He kind of dominated physically where he wanted to go.”

Pops’ contributions did not merely come on the offensive end of the court. GW coach Karl Hobbs pointed to other areas of the game in which Mensah-Bonsu was deserving of praise.

“I don’t think you can single out one thing (about the game),” Hobbs said. “I think that when a guy grabs a rebound the way he did, clogs up the middle defensively and whenever we needed a big basket, we went to him and he finished.”

Mensah-Bonsu’s play against Saint Joseph’s must not be viewed in a vacuum. After starting the season slowly after serving a three-game suspension and battling injuries to both ankles, Pops has been dominating opponents. Since breaking out during a road contest against Duquesne, Mensah-Bonsu is averaging 19 points and 8.5 rebounds per game. He has resumed the dominant defensive form and energy that initially resulted in his being named an All-America candidate and first-team preseason All-Atlantic 10 selection. If Pops continues to play at such a high level, it will become exceedingly difficult to defeat the Colonials down the stretch.

While the Colonials are renowned for their ability to employ multiple weapons to defeat a team on any given night, the most important cog in the wheel is Mensah-Bonsu. Pops is a game-changing player on both ends of the court when he plays his best. He has the innate ability to alter shots in the lane and force players to take difficult shots because of his prowess as a shot-blocker. On offense, he has developed a better array of post moves that maximize his offensive efficiency. No longer can players merely expect him to drop to steps back and rise for a dunk. His newly developed baby hook forces defenders to play him tighter, which allows him to use his athleticism to convert scoring opportunities.

For GW to be successful during the post-season – the ultimate barometer of how good this team is – Mensah-Bonsu must continue to play at a high level. In the NCAA tournament, teams often play at a slower tempo. This leads to an increased reliance on post play on offense and a heightened need for quality rebounding on defense. If GW hopes to advance far into the tournament, the Colonials will need to have a way to stop opposing teams’ star big men such as Duke’s Sheldon Williams, Connecticut’s Hilton Armstrong and Pittsburgh’s Aaron Gray.

It did take the Mayor of Foggy Bottom a long time to round into the form expected of him during his senior season.

“Nothing he’s doing out there is surprising us because we see it every day,” junior Danilo (J.R.) Pinnock said after another Pops double-double against Rhode Island. “He’s playing like the monster he is.”

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