If the mark of a truly great team is its ability to win in the face of injuries, then the GW men’s basketball team proved how good they are against La Salle Wednesday after senior Pops Mensah-Bonsu limped off the court late in the first half, not to return.
Ignited by the second-half play of sophomore Regis Koundjia, the Colonials ground out a 77-65 victory at the Smith Center and, in the process, showed the versatility and resilience of a team with the nation’s longest winning streak. They have won 15 straight since losing to N.C. State in Raleigh Dec. 30.
Without Mensah-Bonsu, one of the team’s leaders on and off the court, and with senior Mike Hall having a subpar game offensively, GW head coach Karl Hobbs relied on the team’s bench to step up its play. He was not disappointed.
Down 35-31 at halftime, No. 6 GW outscored the Explorers 46-30 in the second half.
“I think the fact that Pops wasn’t out there was really our rallying point because Pops is such a valuable part of our team mentally, physically and emotionally,” junior guard Danilo (J.R.) Pinnock said. Millions of Americans woke up to Pinnock’s face Wednesday morning, as he was pictured on the front cover of USA Today, which did a story about the team in its sports section.
Both Hobbs and Pinnock spoke with Koundjia at halftime about stepping up his play and being more aggressive after a lackluster first half. Koundjia responded with a career-high 13 points in the second half and helped force La Salle (17-8, 9-5 Atlantic 10) to turn the ball over 19 times.
“I played badly in the first half,” Koundjia said. “J.R. came up to me and said, ‘you have to finish the play.'”
Koundjia, a transfer from Louisiana State who became eligible for GW (23-1, 13-0 A-10) this semester, is a standout athlete on a team of exceptional athletes. Known for his trademark running style and speed in the open court, he can appear reckless at times. With La Salle limiting GW’s ability to get out in the open court, Koundjia altered his style to become more of a half-court threat.
With freshman defensive specialist Montrell McDonald suspended indefinitely, Koundjia will be relied upon to be productive on a more consistent basis.
“I thought he was outstanding tonight; he brought a lot of energy, and (I liked) his anticipation on defense,” Hobbs said. “It was really nice to see him take control of the team in the huddle, and the other players responded to that.”
The type or extent of Mensah-Bonsu’s injury is unknown. He was being evaluated Wednesday night.
Sophomore guard Maureece Rice added 12 points off the bench for GW, which had 33 of its points come from its bench. Junior guard Carl Elliot also scored 12 for the Colonials, who had five players score in double figures.
La Salle took a 35-31 halftime lead by beating GW at its own game. The Explorers outscored GW 15-2 in fastbreak points in the first half and harassed Mensah-Bonsu in the paint. Hall, Williams and Koundjia were held scoreless, with Mensah-Bonsu and Elliot carrying the load offensively. The teams were tied seven times and the lead changed four times; the Explorer’s four-point halftime lead was the largest for either side.
In the second half, GW adjusted its style of play and took advantage of the ball-handling and passing skill it had on the court with Mensah-Bonsu out.
Defensively, Hall clamped down on reigning Atlantic 10 player of the week Steven Smith and held him to just four points in the second half. With Koundjia taking Mensah-Bonsu’s place for much of the half, GW was able to rotate all five players and prevent the Explorers from becoming comfortable in their offensive set.
“The problem with them is that they’re interchangeable, more so defensively than offensively,” Explorers head coach John Giannini said. “It’s very difficult to run on them. They deny, they pressure and they’re great athletically. That’s why you just can’t get open.”
Hobbs said, “What this season is all about is a group of young men coming to a university, coming in one way, having dreams and chasing their dreams.”