SYRACUSE, N.Y.- At halftime, head coach Mike Lonergan looked at the Colonials and told them they were likely playing the No. 1 team in the country.
Ranked at No. 3 (ESPN/USA Today) entering Saturday night’s match, Syracuse will likely move up two slots Monday after top-ranked Kentucky and No. 2 Ohio State were both defeated. The Orange were GW’s most challenging opponent this season, and Lonergan told his team to embrace it, and use the match as a learning experience.
Roughly 30 minutes later, standing in the hallway of the Carrier Dome after the Colonials’ 85-50 loss to Syracuse, Lonergan still felt the same way.
“I told them that Ohio State and if Indiana was going to win, they were up one at the half, I said ‘we’re playing the number one team in the nation tonight, so take advantage of it, try to keep loose, go out there and enjoy it,’” Lonergan said. “I’m still glad we play these games. I hope that at least playing some of the top teams in the country, Kansas State and Cal and this team, that it will toughen us up.”
The learning experience started early for GW on the road trip- customary starter senior guard Tony Taylor and senior forward Aaron Ware were both benched for the start of play. Taylor didn’t start, checking in after five minutes, and Ware didn’t play until there were just five minutes and 40 seconds left on the first half.
The two were benched for a violation of team rules, Lonergan said, declining to go into specifics. It was a lesson they needed to learn, he added, and said all involved would move on after tonight’s game.
“They broke a team rule and we take our rules seriously and that was their punishment,” Lonergan said. “We’ll move on, and if there’s any other violations, the next punishment will be a little more severe. But it’s over.”
But the two seniors’ disciplinary action was a momentary footnote during play. It was Syracuse’s strong 2-3 zone that dictated the tone of the game, commanding the space in front of the net to shut the Colonials down offensively. Time and again, GW looked to cut to the basket, but couldn’t get around their Orange defenders, trapped by physical limitations against a much larger Syracuse team and contained by the zone. It limited Lonergan’s preferred, motion-reliant flex offense, stopping GW from establishing any sort of presence in the paint.
The Colonials were held to just 30.6 percent shooting from the floor, it’s lowest percentage of the season, going just 19-for-62. To beat the zone, GW would have needed to find holes in its coverage, and heat up from the perimeter. But the Colonials were stopped on many drives to the net, out-blocked 8-2, and couldn’t find success from long range, shooting just 16.7 percent from beyond the arc.
Most telling was the disparity of points in the paint- the Colonials scored just 30 to Syracuse’s 52. GW’s shooting was clearly shut down by the Orange’s defense, Lonergan said, but he also pointed to the Colonials’ recent challenges at the basket. The team’s struggles weren’t solely a result of Syracuse’s play, Lonergan said, but remain the same lack of offensive identity displayed all season.
“We didn’t make shots and we turned the ball over. They make you take shots, but the few good shots we got, we didn’t make them. You’re not going to be able to stay in the game with them if you don’t make good shots,” Lonergan said. “It was disappointing because I thought [sophomore forward] Nemanja [Mikic] actually got some good looks. He is our best shooter and just didn’t go in again. It’s time for those shots to start dropping for us.”
GW’s starting rotation slumped Saturday night, making just six total baskets. Instead, it was again junior forward David Pellom who stepped up for the Colonials, adding 12 points and seven rebounds off the bench to pace GW’s attack. It was the second such game in a row for Pellom, and Lonergan said it would “probably” earn the junior a starting berth in GW’s next match.
Pellom pointed to another statistic when examining his status as the Colonials’ leading scorer on the night: rebounding. From day one, the forward said, Lonergan has emphasized rebounds as a key piece of GW’s play. Tonight, the Colonials outrebounded the Orange on the loss, 42-38, with freshman forward John Kopriva leading the way at the glass with eight rebounds. Lonergan also pointed to Mikic’s five rebounds, calling his team’s play on the glass “one positive,” and Pellom said it was that type of unrelenting presence at the boards, despite the loss, that enabled his success.
“It’s my third year, so I just came in and thought it was about time for me to step it up,” Pellom said. “It was a little frustrating, but I just kept my cool, just kept fighting, fighting to get the rebound or trying to fight for position and get the ball.”
Senior guard Tony Taylor was silenced on the night, adding just five points and dishing out five assists. Junior guard Lasan Kromah added 10 points for the Colonials, despite going just 3-for-13, tied by junior forward Dwayne Smith, who came off the bench for ten points and five boards.
Smith’s main surge came in the second half, when he netted all but one of his points, including seven in a row for GW. Smith, too, emphasized to the importance of capitalizing rebounds when speaking about his performance. But the forward, known last year for his gritty play, also talked about his abilities as a slasher as crucial against Syracuse. In a game where the Orange so tightly controlled the inside, he said, it was a constant fight to simply drive to the net.
“It was really tough to score in the second half,” Smith said. “Syracuse’s defense is really, their guys are long and in our face, so it was hard to score in a 2-3 zone. My slashing ability was important, I was able to contribute in the second half.”
Smith and Pellom’s contributions weren’t enough to make up for Syracuse’s offensive attack. The Orange used their press to create a balanced scoring attack, rotating the ball before overpowering the Colonials on their drives to the net. 12 players scored for Syracuse, the team earning 48 points off the bench.
The Orange shot an even 50 percent from the floor Saturday night, supplemented by besting the Colonials in points off turnovers, 34-3, and on fast breaks, 26-12. It was an example of the team’s domination at both ends, Lonergan said. The Colonials attempted to halt the Orange’s attack, at time switching to a shifting zone defense, but couldn’t contain Syracuse’s shooting.
“They were killing us in transition and certain things so we played a little zone, got away with it for a little while,” Lonergan said. “The problem with the zone is a lot of guys rest in the zone so they made a couple ball reversals, got some wide open threes and they hit them. They’re not normally a great shooting team, but they hit some threes and that makes it very difficult to come back.”
The Colonials next host Bradley Dec. 15, and as they enter a four-game home stretch, Lonergan wants them to use the lessons from a four-game losing streak to turn their play around.
“My hope is it’ll toughen us up. We’ve taken a couple of beatings now, and we’ve got a chance to play some home games. We really have to get better as a team, soon, or it’s really going to be a long year,” Lonergan said.