There was plenty of hype leading up to Wednesday night, concentric circles of cross-university smack-talk first sparked by an advertising blitz and then continued via online message boards and social networking sites until finally converging on an epicenter: a men’s basketball game against George Mason at the Smith Center.
And when the ball was thrown in the air for the opening tip, tapped backward by junior Joseph Katuka and secured by sophomore Tony Taylor, suddenly things could begin to be settled. For all the tweets and chants and talk of the “Battle of the Orange Line,” there remained 40 minutes of basketball to be played.
And it did not take long, no longer than that first possession, for GW’s eventual win to take shape. It was on that possession that senior Damian Hollis, a forward as talented as he can be tentative, drove aggressively to the basket between two Patriot defenders, drawing a foul and being sent to the line.
And though he made just one of two free throws, Hollis displayed an aggression and willingness to pull the trigger that foreshadowed what was to come: 25 points – matching his career high – on 10-of-13 shooting, eight rebounds and a catalyzing role in a 66-49 win.
“I thought early in the game it was just two teams trying to out-run, trying to out-shoot each other. Then I thought Hollis separated the difference,” head coach Karl Hobbs said. “In the first half, he sort of set the tone for us in terms of making baskets.”
Hollis continued to assert himself early after that humble yet telling beginning, pulling up his dribble from the perimeter to knock down a long jumper and then scoring twice more to put up seven of GW’s (5-1) first 16 points.
Throughout the rest of the game – on a jumper from the wing after a crossover dribble, on a spin through the lane late in the second half, on a tightly defended three-pointer let go with the shot-clock winding down after momentarily losing his handle – Hollis displayed not only his dangerousness but decisiveness as well.
“Coaches have been telling me one dribble, jumpshot, doing that stuff,” he explained. “I’ve just been getting to the gym as much as I can and getting up shots and my teammates helped me get in a position to score as well.”
Four of Hollis’ points came during a run of 14 unanswered GW points over a span of five minutes early in the second half, during which Katuka emerged from foul trouble to score five of his seven points.
“That run in the second half really put us in a position that the lead just got so big that it was gonna be difficult for them to come back at that point,” Hobbs said.
Though Katuka would foul out of the game after just eight minutes on the court, the Colonials’ other big men managed to make up for his loss. Senior Hermann Opoku and redshirt sophomore Jabari Edwards also contributed to GW’s 43-30 rebounding advantage, collecting eight and six, respectively.
Also helping the Colonials’ cause was the fact that two of the Patriots’ regular starters, forward Ryan Pearson and guard Andre Cornelius, did not play in the game, reportedly as a disciplinary measure after an alleged incident on a recent road trip.
“Obviously it affected them because those are two terrific players,” Hobbs said, though George Mason head coach Jim Larranaga downplayed the significance of their absence.
What both coaches could agree on was the importance of the game’s atmosphere, a raucous environment featuring a jam-packed student section and dueling chants with George Mason supporters. While Wednesday’s energetic crowd – attendance was announced as 4,125 – was at least in part the result of an aggressive marketing campaign, Hollis said he thinks the Colonials’ play will soon be speaking for itself.
“I feel like if we keep on taking care of business, then people will eventually come out,” Hollis said. “If we keep on doing what we do – defense and energy and keep rebuilding the excitement, then we should have good turnouts.”
GW will next play Navy at Sunday’s BB&T Classic event at Verizon Center. Tip-off is scheduled for 5 p.m.