DAYTON, Ohio – If that’s how this season ends – and barring an unlikely postseason invitation, it will be – then it was not without drama.
An early nine-point lead becomes an eight-point first-half deficit. The wrong side of a 7-0 run turns into 16 of the next 22 points and, two minutes later, a tie game. A banged-up senior leads all scorers in what is likely his collegiate swan song. A team picked to finish second-to-last rallies to stay within a basket with less than four minutes to play in one of the conference’s most hostile environments.
But, of course, when Tuesday’s game ended, GW’s season probably went down with it. A 70-60 loss at Dayton cut short the Colonials’ return to the Atlantic 10 tournament in its opening round, ending the team’s hopes of extending its season into the weekend with the type of loss that leaves what-ifs lingering in the rearview mirror.
“We could have taken the game over, but they had a few plays that went their way,” said senior Damian Hollis, who scored a game-high 19 points. “And as a result they went up.”
One such instance came just inside the game’s final four minutes, when the Flyers had broken a tie to open a three-point lead over GW (16-14) through a trio of Kurt Huelsman foul shots. Hollis, the A-10’s second-best free-throw shooter this season, earned a one-and-one opportunity from the line, but missed the first shot.
Dayton secured the rebound and doubled its lead on the resulting possession with Rob Lowery sinking his third three-pointer of the game.
Minutes earlier, with the Colonials trailing by two, junior Joseph Katuka had received a one-and-one opportunity as well, but also could not convert the front end.
“Those were sort of momentum breakers for us,” head coach Karl Hobbs said of the plays. “You’re on their home court – you’ve gotta be able to finish those plays off.”
At the same time, Huelsman became a fixture at the free-throw line, making five trips there for eight shots in the game’s final seven minutes. Though he missed his only field-goal attempt, the fourth-year forward made six of his eight free throws, all of them coming during that same span.
“I thought he did a fantastic job of keeping balls alive, getting second shots, and then we fouled him,” Hobbs said of Huelsman, who entered the game making just under 59 percent of his foul shots. “Today he looked like a 90-percent free-throw shooter.”
Sophomore Tony Taylor, who scored five of his seven points in a 50-second span to put GW within one with nine minutes to play, said the helplessness of preventing Huelsman from scoring was a frustrating feeling down the stretch.
“You have no control over if he’s gonna make it or not. You can’t contest; you can’t do anything. You just have to sit back and watch,” Taylor said. “That’s probably one of the hardest feelings of being in a close game – watching them shoot free throw after free throw.”
“It was heartbreaking,” he added, “but we just needed to get stops and we just weren’t doing it.”
Keeping GW in contention amid Dayton’s continued scoring was a stretch of inspired play from Hollis, who scored six of his 19 points over a two and a half minute span in the game’s final 10 minutes that turned a four-point deficit into a tie game.
Hollis injured his ribs in the teams’ Jan. 20 meeting, a fact he said was fresh in his mind throughout the rematch. He said that motivation, combined with a desire to defy the unwelcoming Dayton crowd and his own personal history, helped fuel his performance.
“I don’t think I’ve ever played well against them since I was a freshman,” Hollis said. “I just got into a groove and I guess my aggression took over.”
“We felt that he was gonna be able to score tonight,” Hobbs said. “Once he loosened up and forgot about what was hurting and just played the game, he was tremendous.”
Yet ultimately, it was not enough to overcome the seventh-seeded Flyers. Hollis was the lone Colonial to score in double figures; none bested his six rebounds. And though GW out-shot Dayton 45 percent to 43 percent and out-rebounded the Flyers 31 to 28 – and out-scored them in the paint, off turnovers, and on second chances – the hosts still prevailed and the Colonials did not add a 17th win to its record.
That record, however permanent it may be, is not an insignificant one. GW’s 16 wins this season are only three less than it had amassed in the previous two seasons combined, a sign of progress Hobbs said is encouraging as the program attempts to rebuild itself after two previous years of futility.
“I’m not saying we’re happy with that, but for the most part, it was a good year for us,” Hobbs said. “It wasn’t a year where we underachieved. It most certainly was a year that we got a lot that we can build on and the most important thing is that we’re back to playing our GW style. We gotta add some pieces to what we have and I think we’ll be right back there chasing for the title.”
For Taylor, the promise of the future is encouraging, but the immediacy of the loss and this season’s end put excitement about what might come later on the backburner.
“When we start looking at it, I’m sure it will come, but right now I’m just upset about the loss,” Taylor said. “I just wish we could have kept playing this year – for the seniors and for ourselves and for this school.”
The article has been revised to reflect the following correction: (March 11, 2010):
The article originally stated that GW’s 16 wins this season are only one less than the team earned in the last two seasons combined. In fact, the number is three less.