For GW, one of two teams remaining in Division I men’s basketball with a single defeat and the holder of the longest winning streak in the country, not every game can be a blowout. And for coach Karl Hobbs, that’s OK.
“When you are 21-1, there are two teams in the country with one loss; oh, we’re thrilled,” Hobbs said after the No. 7/8 (Associated Press/USA Today) Colonials (21-1, 11-0 Atlantic 10) narrowly defeated the Minutemen of the University of Massachusetts 69-66 at the Smith Center on Wednesday night. “I want to make clear to everyone. We are very, very happy with that win.”
After using a 15-2 run to grab its largest lead of the game at 26-14, UMass (10-12, 5-6) used crisp execution in its half court offense and a zone defense that forced the Colonials into 35 percent field goal shooting for the game.
Down the stretch, the closeness of the game was eerily reminiscent of last year’s matchup at the Smith Center. In that game after forcing overtime, a last-second tip-in by Minuteman forward Rashaun Freeman snapped the Colonials then-perfect home record and began a stretch during which GW dropped three of four games and lost its top-25 ranking.
Despite how crucial the loss was to last year’s team, GW’s leading scorer, junior Danilo (J.R.) Pinnock, said revenge was not used as motivation for this year’s squad.
“Last year was last year,” he said. “Right now, we feel like we’re doing something special and we want to continue that. And we are just taking one game at a time.”
A main factor in the different outcomes of the two games was the play of Freeman. Last year, the all-A-10 first-team selection dominated the game, tallying 27 points and 15 rebounds in the victory. This year, Freeman struggled en route to a four-point, six-rebound performance. Freeman also struggled with fouls all game and played only 18 minutes.
“He was never able to get into the rhythm of the game. He played 18 minutes, I’m pretty sure this is the least, amount of minutes he played his entire career,” Hobbs said about Freeman’s performance. “I think it was more so the foul trouble than anything we were doing in particular (to shut him down).”
The A-10 rivals have played a number of close games over the years. On Feb. 6, 1995, the Colonials defeated Marcus Camby and the then-No.1 Minutemen 78-75 at the Smith Center.
Pinnock paced the Colonials Wednesday night, scoring 14 points to go along with five rebounds and two assists. Senior Pops Mensah-Bonsu – with 12 points and eight rebounds – and sophomore Maureece Rice – with 11 points, four assists and three rebounds – were the only other Colonials to score in double digits.
With the win, the Colonials now hold the nation’s longest win streak at 13 games – one better than the Memphis Tigers from Conference USA, who have a 12-game streak of their own. With one more victory, the Colonials can match the best winning streak in program history, held by the 1935-6 squad.
Both players and coaches appear to be enjoying the program’s nearly unprecedented success.
“When I came here, the dream was to get to the tournament, play in the tournament,” Pinnock said. “But to be No. 7 in the country and to wake up and see my teammate and my coach on (the ESPN morning show) ‘Cold Pizza,’ it’s crazy and I’m loving every minute of it.”
For its next game, GW will travel to Richmond to play the Spiders, pitting the A-10’s best offense against its best defense. Richmond allows a stingy 56.2 points per game and employs a deliberate offense that often frustrates its opponents.
In the first meeting between the teams on Feb. 5 at the Smith Center, GW controlled the tempo from the tip-off, and Richmond was never able to dictate the Colonials’ pace and force them to be effective in the half court. GW forced 22 turnovers, allowing them to use their speed and athleticism to score 24 fast-break points. As a result, GW led by double digits nearly the entire game and won 80-55.
In the midst of a four-game losing streak, Richmond has yet to win during the month of February. With only two players averaging double figures – senior forward Jermaine Bucknor at13.8 points per game and Columbia, Md., native Kevin Steenberge at 10.1 points per game – the Spiders struggle on offense, averaging a league-worst 52.7 points per game.
Steenberge is a powerful player when he stays on the court, but is often in foul trouble and subsequently plays only 24.1 minutes per game, fourth-highest on the team.
Mensah-Bonsu said he always relishes the opportunity to square off against the Spiders’ big man.
“It is always going to be a battle when we face each other; he’s a real good big man, he’s real skilled, he can shoot, he has a couple post moves,” Mensah-Bonsu said after the Colonials’ first contest against Richmond this year. “I always anticipate our matchup.”
Because GW has yet to win on the road at Richmond during Hobbs’ tenure, Hobbs and his players view a potential victory over the Spiders as one of the season’s primary goals.
“That’d be special it really would be, because the seniors would have accomplished everything they set out to do this year,” Hobbs said. “One of the goals that they set out is to leave here and to be able to win at Richmond.”
-Andrew Alberg contributed to this report.