Men’s basketball bounces La Salle

Dwayne Smith and his teammates understood the context surrounding Wednesday’s men’s basketball game against La Salle. Head coach Karl Hobbs may not want his players to follow standings too closely, lest they become distracted from the process of playing, but the freshman forward was aware that the Colonials’ loss in their last game kept them in a tight pack of teams vying for positioning in the Atlantic 10 standings.

“We knew that this game got more important,” Smith said. “So with that mindset that all of us had. we just basically came to play.”

It’s a simple assessment, but motivation need not be complicated to work. On the back of Smith’s career-high 21 points, junior Joseph Katuka’s personal-best 14 rebounds, and freshman Lasan Kromah’s third straight 20-point game, the Colonials withstood a second-half resurgence from the visiting Explorers to keep their ninth-place spot with an 81-72 win.

That trio propelled GW (15-11, 5-8 A-10) throughout the game, with Katuka doing most of the dirty work inside and Kromah and Smith taking the initiative to score on offense. The freshmen have assumed integral roles in GW’s offense at times this season, showing a level of enterprise not typical of newcomers to the college game.

But Hobbs said there are no expectations for reverence among Colonials, only duties to be done and opportunities to be seized.

“This team doesn’t defer to anyone,” Hobbs said. “There are times and certain situations [where] it calls for guys to step up, it calls for certain guys to make plays and these two guys tonight most certainly stepped up and made plays.”

On a night where his typical outside shooting touch was off, Kromah began to focus his attention closer to the basket, driving through traffic in the lane or along the baseline to score on layups or earn trips to the free-throw line.

“I wasn’t really on, so I wasn’t just gonna take shots because I’m open,” he said. “I was gonna drive and take another aspect of my game and it worked for me.”

It was Kromah’s third straight game with 20-plus points and sixth such performance this season. After slipping into a mid-year funk that saw him score only 14 points over five games, the first-year guard has re-emerged during A-10 play, scoring double-digit points in nine of 13 games.

The development of Kromah’s game has even inspired his coach to draw flattering comparisons to his tenure as an assistant at UConn in the 1990s.

“Everyday, he’s just reminding me more and more of Richard Hamilton,” Hobbs said. “He’s gonna be a player that’s gonna have an opportunity to be special and a guy that’s got a chance, I think, clearly, to play at the next level.”

Along with Kromah, Smith’s standout game helped GW bounce back from a second-half slump that saw a nine-point lead turn into a six-point deficit in less than seven minutes. Smith scored 11 of his 21 points and grabbed four of his eight rebounds in the game’s final dozen minutes, during which the Colonials came back to tie the game and eventually put the Explorers away.

At the same time, Katuka held his own in the post, helping GW match up with a La Salle team that starts three forwards and a center, all of which stand 6-foot-8 or taller.

Explorers head coach John Giannini said Katuka taught his team, which gives extended minutes to a trio of freshmen and a former walk-on due to injuries, some valuable lessons in the paint.

“They’re learning by fire and Katuka was an excellent teacher today,” Giannini said. “There’s no question he out-muscled us and out-fought us for some key rebounds.”

With three games remaining in the regular season, the Colonials are tied for ninth place in their 14-team conference, two and a half games ahead of 13th-place Saint Joseph’s and two games behind seventh-place Dayton.

Moving up one game to usurp Duquesne in eighth place would earn GW a home game in the first round of the A-10 tournament, but Kromah said the Colonials won’t let an awareness of the standings distract them from the goal at hand.

“We know that we’re around the middle, so we’re just trying to play every game one game at a time,” he said. “Try to play our game, have a hot streak, just finish the season out with a positive end to it.”

GW will next host Charlotte Saturday at 6 p.m. in the team’s first-ever homecoming game.

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