Confidence was the key.
In the press room after Sunday’s game, VCU head coach Shaka Smart said his team’s confidence was the difference-maker in its 75-60 victory over the Colonials in the BB&T Classic.
His players agreed. Junior guard Darius Theus said it was his team’s confidence in his ability that lead him to net a long, sinking three.
When GW head coach Mike Lonergan and senior guard Tony Taylor sat down at the table, confidence was on their minds, too. It was a lack of confidence that tripped the Colonials up over crucial stretches of play, they said. And, as usual, Taylor shouldered the burden for his team’s deficit.
“I have to motivate my team a lot better than I’m doing,” Taylor said. “I’m obviously not doing a good job and we just have to trust each other a lot more and just make plays.”
The Rams and the Colonials took the court in the Verizon Center equally hyped, playing a tightly contested game over the first minutes of the first half. The game saw three ties and three lead changes over the first six minutes of play, before knotting at 16.
But then, in an all-too-familiar turn of events, the Colonials were doomed by an opponent’s scoring run: The Rams posted a 16-4 run over GW to explode out for a lead, ending the half with a 43-26 advantage.
After Kansas State used a similar 15-1 run to undo the Colonials Thursday night, it was an unwelcome pattern of play for GW. VCU controlled the pace of the game in the first, forcing the Colonials to play up-tempo. It was a fast style that threw GW’s focus, forcing them into 10 first half turnovers that the Rams converted into 16 points.
VCU’s control of the pace shook the Colonials’ presence at the net, too, forcing GW to rush its looks and take bad shots. The shooting struggles are becoming another unwelcome pattern for the Colonials – going 40.7 percent from the floor and 28.6 percent from beyond the arc, it’s an indication of a team trying to find its offensive identity.
“We need to get more than a couple guys more committed on both ends of the court, and we really struggle at certain positions defensively,” Lonergan said. “The good thing is it seems like more a lack of effort than talent.”
The offensive struggles carried over to GW’s defensive play. Though the Colonials bested VCU in points in the paint in the first, 14-6, the Rams sunk GW from three-point range, netting nine treys to establish their commanding lead.
Lonergan switched GW’s defense from a man-to-man to a 1-3-1 zone in the midst of the Colonials’ slump, hoping to best VCU’s screens and tighten his team’s defensive presence.
“For whatever reason, we continued to make some mistakes out there,” Lonergan said. “I think we’ve got to get better defensively. Part of those runs are not just our lack of defense, it’s also our scoring problems and our turnovers. Truthfully, you can talk about confidence, I think one of the problems of our team is that we have some guys that are too confident. Too confident in their offensive abilities.”
It was crucial for the Colonials to post a strong opening in the second half, and over the first 12 minutes of play, they did. GW became the aggressor, posting a small scoring run of its own. Led by what Lonergan called “excellent” decision making from Taylor, who created valuable scoring opportunities for his teammates, the Colonials pulled within six.
But even a 51.9 shooting percentage from the floor wasn’t enough for GW to overcome its 16-point halftime deficit. Sophomore forward Nemanja Mikic paced GW’s offense, adding 15 points, and Taylor posted 14, dishing out five assists and grabbing five rebounds. The Colonials continued to attack the paint, earning gritty points out of senior forward Aaron Ware, who posted eight to the scoreboard, often off plays that involved sharp cuts to the basket.
No one from GW was as explosive offensively as VCU’s senior forward Bradford Burgess, who netted 24 points and grabbed five boards. Without a go-to hot shooter, the Colonials needed to enhance their defensive presence, but VCU posted a 43.1 shooting percentage on the game. More telling were the 17 GW turnovers that the Rams converted into 21 points, a breakdown Lonergan attributes to his team’s struggles to maintain a solid defensive presence in the face of a shaky offensive performance.
“We haven’t put two good halves together yet. Hopefully we’ll keep working hard and get a lot better. We need to get more than a couple guys committed at both ends of the court and we really struggle at certain positions defensively,” Lonergan said. “We’re not getting a lot of scoring from certain positions. Our biggest problem right now is some of our guys when they’re not scoring, it affects their defense and there’s no excuse for that.”
The biggest Achilles heel for the Colonials continued to be VCU’s presence from deep. The Rams continued to find a way to kick it out to the perimeter, shooting 50.0 from three-point range on the game, hitting 12 treys that cemented their victory and helped stymie GW’s attempt at a rally. Lonergan was clearly frustrated at the Colonials’ inability to defend the three, pointing out that assistant coach Pete Strickland’s scouting report emphasized the Rams’ potent shot from beyond the arc.
“You know, they were wide open,” Lonergan said. “A few guys had a breakdown on almost every play. We continued to give them wide open threes, we tried to trap a little, but the rotation was a little slow which gave them more open threes.”
It was 40 minutes of play where the Colonials couldn’t keep a consistent pace with the Rams, shaken by fast play that left GW struggling to control the ball through the half court. At times, the team looked tired during the game, clearly bested by VCU’s fast, athletic style, unable to make crucial plays down the stretch.
After six consecutive games away from the Smith Center, it would be easy for the Colonials to blame an underwhelming performance on fatigue. The team could also point to the challenges that come with rebuilding a new program, with a new style, with a new coach. But Taylor isn’t about to shrug off responsibility.
“I’m not going to blame it on anything else except for we didn’t play well today,” Taylor said. “When we go on those scoring droughts, it just takes the life out of us and we can’t let that happen. We’ve got to turn up our defense when we can’t score and not let the other team score. I think we’ve got to do a better job at that.”