Defense stalls as men’s basketball falls to La Salle

La Salle’s four-guard offense wasn’t a setup GW had faced before.

Still, head coach Mike Lonergan and the Colonials felt prepared. They had a strong scouting report, sophomore forward Nemanja Mikic said, one they had utilized to its fullest potential in the days of practice leading up to the team’s trip to Philadelphia. On top of that, GW was riding a three-game win streak, one highlighted by the emergence of a sound, commanding defense.

The Colonials took the court against the Explorers Wednesday and jumped out to a quick 12-4 lead. But then, the team that, prior to the game, was in second place in the A-10 in both scoring defense and three-point defense, faltered.

It was a defensive skid that neither Lonergan nor Mikic could explain – one that saw the Colonials (8-12, 3-3 A-10) drop another league road contest, falling to La Salle 78-63.

“We wanted it to be fast-paced because we didn’t think they had a lot of depth. We knew their starters were very, very good,” Lonergan said. “I just thought, from the beginning, we did not have good defensive effort overall. A couple guys came to play for us, but some of our better players really did not play well defensively tonight, for whatever reason. I wish I could figure it out.”

The Explorers took to the court starting sophomore guards Tyreek Duren and Sam Mills, junior guard Ramon Galloway and senior guard Earl Pettis. It made for a lethal offensive combination, the Colonials bested by driving cuts and pick-and-rolls that stopped GW’s players in their tracks.

La Salle narrowly bested the Colonials on the boards, earning a 27-26 advantage, but it was pure shooting that cemented the victory. The game was effectively won in the first half, when the Explorers shot 72.4 percent from the floor, and went 75 percent from three-point range. Undefeated at home for the season, La Salle headed into the match leading the Atlantic 10 in three-point shooting and used it to decisively pull ahead of GW.

“I just think there’s no energy from certain players, for whatever reason. We’ve changed the lineups, done a lot of things and we were coming off three league wins in a row, so the same lineup was out there tonight, and just didn’t get the job done. And the game was basically over at halftime,” Lonergan said.

The main thorn in the Colonials’ side was Galloway, who set a new career high with 28 points on the night. His effortless three-point shots were highlighted by lightning-fast points on fast breaks, contributing to a 13-8 Explorers advantage in that category.

Stymied by La Salle’s hot hand, GW used a number of defenses, looking to pull itself out of a hole. Beginning in the Colonials’ basic man-to-man front, the team tried a 1-3-1 zone, but found itself beaten on the wing by La Salle’s quick-moving guards. The Colonials went into the full-court press, but didn’t have the energy to sustain – or even begin ­– the attack needed to shut down the Explorers. La Salle quickly spread the Colonials thin, exposing holes for open drives.

The difference maker in the defense tonight, Lonergan said, was GW’s effort. Too often, the Colonials were beaten to the ball, or didn’t get back fast enough to stop La Salle after sloppy ball handling, allowing them 22 points off 14 Colonials turnovers.

“We’re starting, basically, four guards ourselves right now, and they start four guards, but we knew we were going to have trouble at certain positions to guard them off the dribble. But we actually had trouble even with our better defenders just guarding at all,” Lonergan said. “Just no effort. No intensity, it was like a lay-up line out there. They really lit us up in the first half”

Perhaps the missing source of energy was junior David Pellom. Sidelined by a left knee injury in practices leading up to Wednesday’s match, the forward spent the game sitting on the bench clad in team garb, the first to stand and slap his teammates’ hands as they exited the court at timeouts. Pellom’s status will be re-evaluated in the days leading up to the Jan. 28 contest at Fordham, but his absence tonight sucked some of the life out of the listless Colonials, Lonergan said.

“It would have given us more energy,” Lonergan said. “I think Dave gets some of his teammates up, and I thought besides [junior guard] Bryan Bynes, we just didn’t have a lot of energy. [Graduate student forward] Jabari [Edwards] gave us a little bit of a spurt, too.”

The team posted a 46.3-shooting percentage from the floor, supplementing that with 38.5-percent shooting from downtown. GW grabbed a 14-6 edge in second-chance points, the offense paced by Mikic, who netted 13 points. Junior forward Dwanye Smith was next, adding 11 points, followed by junior guard Lasan Kromah, who posted 10 points, pulled down five boards and grabbed four steals. Bynes and Edwards added six and eight points, respectively.

Still, it was an offensive effort that wasn’t quite enough to overcome La Salle’s explosion. Senior guard Tony Taylor, the offensive catalyst in the Colonials’ two victories over the Explorers last season, often fell victim to La Salle double-teams, adding just seven points and five rebounds. As the Explorers’ lead grew, so did GW’s impatience, with the team rushing shots and taking aim off of bad looks. To be faced with a points hole as big as La Salle created, in the face of what Lonergan called a “pretty good” first half offensive effort, was maddening, Mikic said.

“In the first half, I think we were like [at one point] 66 percent from the field, which is pretty good. We should be going into the locker room all happy, but the next thing you know, they’re shooting 70-something percent from the field,” Mikic said. “It’s hard to win against a team that’s shooting such a high field goal percentage.”

The play all went back to effort, Lonergan said. The breakdown in defense, faltering amid La Salle’s energetic play, failing to capitalize on relatively strong offense – it could all be traced back to a lack of energy.

Even after identifying the source of the failing, Lonergan still couldn’t put his finger on what had changed in GW’s defensive front Wednesday night. When questioned, neither could Mikic.

“I have no idea. I guess we’ll have to find out in the film session,” Mikic said.

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