The Colonials were stunned.
Some of the players looked at the floor. Others had their heads in their hands. Members of the coaching staff slowly shook their heads. On the court, the five GW players in action watched the seconds tick away.
Stunned. Just five minutes ago, the team had been poised to pull off a stunning upset of Temple, the first-place team in the A-10 standings. But the buzzer sounded instead on a 79-72 Colonials (8-16) loss. The team was left wondering what happened during that collapse.
“I had a lot of faith in my team. I thought we were going to pull it out. Everybody was playing so well, everybody was playing hard, everybody was engaged,” senior guard Tony Taylor said. “We just had a lot of mental mistakes at the end. I’m just really disappointed in myself that I couldn’t help my team.”
When the Colonials boarded their bus to Philadelphia Tuesday, the odds were stacked against them. Temple sat atop the A-10 rankings, while GW was vying for 10th place in a three-way tie with Charlotte and Richmond. The Owls boasted the best shooting percentage in the league, making 47.5 percent of their shots from the field, and were second in the A-10 in three-point shooting, at 40.2 percent.
On top of that, Temple was riding a six-game winning streak. GW was entering the game looking to snap a four-game losing streak, and had yet to win a road game in the Atlantic 10. On paper, it didn’t seem like there was much for the Colonials to be optimistic about. But those facts were the wind at their backs entering the Liacouras Center.
“Everybody really realized that we were playing against the top team in the A-10 and we wanted to come out and just play hard and put on a show and win this game,” Taylor said. “We knew that if we won this game it would be a big statement.”
The Owls won the tip, and scored two baskets in quick succession to jump out to an early 4-0 lead. But then, junior forward Dwayne Smith decisively slammed home a rebound off senior forward Aaron Ware’s missed jumper. The bucket put GW on the board, and lit a fire under the team.
By the end of the first, GW was shooting 56.7 percent from the field, complimented by 42.9 percent shooting from three-point range. Much of the team’s offensive success was due to a renewed presence below the net, the team boxing out and out-leaping Temple en route to a 18-16 rebound advantage, a 10-point advantage in points in the paint and a twelve-point lead at halftime.
Backing up the Colonials’ offense was a dominant defense, one that pressured the Owls with a 1-3-1 zone and held Temple to just 32.1 percent shooting in the first half. Smith used the setup to his advantage, besting the Owls under the net at both ends of the court. He posted 14 points, four boards and two assists on the night, scoring inside with his back to the basket and turning around to be GW’s true presence inside on defense.
“I was basically trying to build off of my last game, off UMass. Coach made it clear that I’m a good scorer down the low post, so I was just building off of that. And a little bit of luck and little bit of hard work paid off,” Smith said.
The zone proved particularly effective along the perimeter, Temple only able to post a 28.6 shooting percentage from long-range. The Colonials ran the scheme mainly to capitalize on the absence of Owls senior guard Juan Fernandez, head coach Mike Lonergan said, who was sidelined toward the end of the first with foul trouble.
But while the zone was effective, its primary purpose was to conceal what would eventually become the undoing of GW: Taylor, too, was in foul trouble.
“We were lucky they had their point guard in foul trouble. Ours was in foul trouble,” Lonergan said. “We were trying to do that to hide Tony’s foul trouble. When [Fernandez] is in the game, he just picks you apart.”
Two minutes out of the break, Taylor was whistled for his third foul. At the time, it didn’t seem to matter. The Colonials had a solid lead, and were scoring well. Undeterred by missed jump shots and three attempts, GW made up for it at the rim, pushing in layups that extended the lead to 14 points.
Slowly, though, the Owls crept back in. Taylor’s fourth foul sent him to the bench for a long period of time. When he was joined there by junior forward David Pellom, also with four fouls, Temple began its climb out of the hole.
Taylor couldn’t sit on the bench forever. With seven points and six assists, he was the key piece to GW’s offense, the force that all else relied on. And so, with six minutes and 38 seconds to play, Taylor was sent back into the game. Less than a minute later, he was whistled for his fifth foul.
“It’s not the referee. I don’t care if it’s clean, you don’t reach in on your third or fourth foul,” Lonergan said. “That’s something he’s got to learn from. That killed us.”
It was a costly call, and one the Colonials could not afford to have go against them. Once Taylor was subtracted from the lineup, the wheels seemed to come off the team. It happened slowly at first, but then everything snowballed, bad play after bad play crashing into one another on GW’s downward slide.
The Colonials clung to a slim three-point lead when graduate student Jabari Edwards leapt up for a board, grabbing it, coming back down– and handing it over to the Owls, who converted for two points, taking the lead.
It was a lead Temple wouldn’t relinquish, stepping up its shooting to 51.9 percent from the field and 44.4 percent from three, using a 22-5 run over the final five minutes to pull out the win. And it was a lead the Colonials handed to the Owls when the team’s drive and energy exited the court with Taylor.
“I couldn’t believe what was happening, really,” Lonergan said. “I knew they would make a run and turn up the heat, but I mean, we were just throwing it. We had a guy wide open for three, we were throwing it to the other team. All of a sudden, everybody had a part of it that was out there.”
When a team hits its stride offensively, it tends to get re-energized on defense, and that was the story for Temple. A more heavily pressuring defensive front quickly increased the game’s physicality, and GW had no answer, playing an increasingly tentative game.
The Colonials began to struggle on offense. Missed layup after missed layup mounted, and even junior guard Lasan Kromah, who lead the team with 22 points, and Pellom, who had 10, couldn’t convert. With decreased shooting came shakier ball handling, contributing to eight GW turnovers.
What happened to the Colonials, Lonergan said, was panic.
“We couldn’t handle the ball. We had a lot of guys that were having great games and then, all of a sudden, they just panicked offensively. Key turnovers, where we threw the ball inbounds right to the other team,” Lonergan said. “We were panicked. That’s a situation where we’re a much better team with Tony in the game.”
It was a loss that exposed the Colonials’ lack of depth, and one that showed how the team’s confidence is shaken by subtracting just one player from its roster. The mood was subdued as GW prepared to head back to the District.
Now, Taylor said, the Colonials are growing impatient.
“We’re looking for anything right now,” Taylor said. “We’re a desperate basketball team trying to win games.”