Colonials make commanding debut

There are a lot of statistics head coach Mike Lonergan could examine after walking away from his team’s 92-65 trouncing of Bowie State in Sunday night’s exhibition match.

He could look at his team’s impressive final tally, surpassing the total number of points the Colonials posted in any game last season. He could look at GW’s shooting percentage, or junior guard Lasan Kromah’s night-high 23 points or senior guard Tony Taylor’s nine assists.

But instead, Lonergan said he will focus on a Bulldogs statistic, a telling example of the defensive mindset the new coach brings to the sidelines in the Smith Center.

“My big stat is field goal percentage defense,” Lonergan said. “And they shot 35 percent in the first half. So that’s the biggest stat I look at, and rebounding.”

The Colonials held the Bulldogs to 40.8-percent shooting on the night, an indication of the powerful defense Lonergan plans to stress this season. GW opened play with a commanding man-to-man defensive effort, tracking its Bowie State opponents around the court and keeping them from hitting double-digit points through the first seven minutes of play.

As his team began to pull away offensively, Lonergan felt free to experiment, he said, implementing a 1-3-1 half-court trap that further stopped the Bulldogs in their tracks. The coach alluded to the limits of setting up a zone postgame, but was heartened by his team’s success during Sunday night’s play.

“We played a lot of man early, and I never really play a 2-3 zone except for underneath,” Lonergan said. “The 1-3-1, it is a zone trap, but I think it’s a fun defensive play, and it’s a defense you can’t play too long. When they figure it out, you get destroyed in it, but I thought the guys stayed in it for a long time and did a great job in it.”

GW’s relative freedom to explore its defensive options was born from its offensive push, shooting 55.9 percent on the game and opening play in the second half with a 15-2 scoring run.

Offensive play was marked by a lot of movement on the court from the Colonials, the result of an emphasis on running the ball that both Lonergan and his players said was the main subject of pre-game conversations. Lonergan told his team to get the Bulldogs tired by playing up-tempo, and press heavily off free throws, which proved important in a physical game where the Colonials shot 37 times from the line.

The game also presented a chance for standout players to shine, notably Kromah and Taylor. In his return to the Smith Center court after missing last season due to injury, Kromah was commanding from the shooting guard slot, posting 23 points, six assists and three rebounds. Taylor added 12 points of his own, but his play on the night was decidedly unselfish, adding nine assists and grabbing the ball for the Colonials with five steals. Senior guard Aaron Ware also added 12 points to the final tally, and freshman forward John Kopriva announced his arrival in Foggy Bottom with nine points on 4-of-5 shooting, adding two rebounds and opening the game with a solo 6-2 scoring run.

“Just getting that first basket was huge. They were all kind of in transition, and those fast break points, coach Lonergan stressed before the game just to run, run and guys were being really unselfish,” Kopriva said.

Lonergan cycled through the entire roster on the night, including the team’s three walk-on players, but cautioned that fans shouldn’t expect to see full-roster play throughout the season. He’s still working to find a solid “eight or 10” players that will comprise the Colonials’ main squad this season, and said those decisions would be finalized throughout practice this week.

GW took its new coach’s directives to heart during play, making sure to run the ball, which Taylor said would be the team’s strength this season. Lonergan told the team to be unselfish and push the ball on fast breaks, Taylor said. Lonergan wasn’t without critiques of his team’s performance, alluding to a need to better cement its understanding of the new plays, cut down on turnovers (the Colonials had 17 on the night) and improve free-throw percentage (shooting just 56.8 percent), along with his desire to implement better post-up play this season. Part of that approach, Lonergan said, is designed around graduate student forward Jabari Edwards, who played only 14 minutes Sunday night, a statistic characteristic of the big man that Lonergan is intent on changing, looking for more play time and offensive production from Edwards this season.

“We’re behind, we’re behind with the players learning the system, probably behind more than I expected,” Lonergan said. “Some guys have picked it up, and other guys have really struggled, for whatever reason.”

But as GW left the court with such a decisive win, it was hard for Lonergan to keep the smile off of his face. The victory had erased many doubts: The Colonials didn’t appear to falter under new leadership, and the camaraderie within the team was evident, with all of the players on the bench leaping to their feet with each impressive on-court play. Doubts about Kromah’s return had been silenced, too, with the always-strong perimeter shooter facing down heavy traffic in the lane to drive aggressively to the basket.

As Lonergan considered the challenging season ahead, he had only one wish as he exited the Smith Center.

“I wish tonight counted, I wish we were one and oh,” Lonergan said. “I don’t like exhibition games because you’re trying to win for the fans but you’re also trying to experiment.”

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