You’ll be forgiven if, looking at the stat sheet, you’re not sure Isaiah Armwood actually took any time off at all.
The Villanova transfer returned to the court after a year off Saturday afternoon and transformed into the driving force behind GW’s 72-46 victory over NCAA Division III Catholic in an exhibition game – pulling down 16 boards, adding seven points, two blocks and three steals.
To put it simply, Armwood enjoyed his return to the hardwood.
“I felt like I was a freshman again,” Armwood said. “It really felt good to get the first game out of the way and look forward to the rest of the season.”
Armwood was the key piece of a GW defense that oftentimes left Catholic stymied, running down the clock as it desperately sought an open look. An imposing presence in the paint, Armwood threw his whole body into maintaining a physical presence in the paint, and gathered 16 boards on the game, 11 of which were defensive.
It would have been the most rebounds recorded by a single Colonial since February 2009 – except that the contest was technically just an exhibition match.
“Rebounding is something that [head coach Mike] Lonergan emphasizes a lot. He emphasizes it every day in practice,” Armwood said. “He’s demanding about it, so I have to go out there and do it.”
The Cardinals shot just 30.2 percent on the game. And Catholic had only 10 assists, proof the team was struggling to run its offense.
Still, Lonergan wasn’t satisfied with his team’s defense. GW’s rebound margin, 45 to Catholic’s 33, wasn’t as big as the coach would have liked, and he saw his players get pushed around by smaller Cardinals on a few possessions and fail to box out on others. For a young team like the Colonials, Lonergan added, the physicality of the defense needs to be ramped up even more.
“I give them credit. [Against] some of our tougher guys, Catholic U came out and played physical,” Lonergan said. “Physical at point guard and other positions, and it really took a couple of guys out of the game, and we got into some foul trouble on different things.”
The main foul trouble came for freshman guard Joe McDonald, who started the game but fouled out midway through the second with a stat line that included six assists.
Still, Lonergan said, McDonald will be GW’s starting point guard moving forward, calling Saturday’s play an anomaly that doesn’t represent the freshman’s true potential.
“Not judged by today, Joe has been our best point guard by far, in the preseason and trip to Italy. He just had an off day, the foul trouble, everything – he got rattled. That’s not indicative of his talent,” Lonergan said. “He’s got a week to get back, put this out of his mind, I hope.”
With McDonald at the point, GW took the lead at the 18:38 mark of the first half off of a dunk from sophomore forward John Kopriva. From there, GW never looked back, maintaining a comfortable margin over the Cardinals throughout most of play. The Colonials shot 46.6 percent on the game, making 40 percent of their shots from long range.
The offense relied heavily on gritty play, scoring 40 points in the paint, many of GW’s tallies coming from high-low post maneuvers that often saw Armwood team up with senior forward Dwayne Smith, or Kopriva, to get turn-around buckets and easy lay-ins. Smith finished the game with a team-high 14 points, adding two boards and two steals, and Kopriva netted 11 points and five rebounds.
“We’re not a very good shooting team. We work on it all the time,” Lonergan said. “We are an average to poor shooting team, and if you’re not a good shooting team, you have to get the ball inside and establish an inside game, and go inside-out.”
Senior guard Lasan Kromah added 12 points on the night, pulling down three rebounds, dishing out two assists and adding three steals. And freshman forward Patricio Garino became the fourth Colonial to enter double digits, adding 10 points, five boards and four assists. A lot of the team’s success came from its focus on inside-out play, Kromah said, and communication on the court.
Overall, the team seemed to relax more in the second, after turnovers and allowing Catholic to, at times, control the pace of the first half kept GW from decisively pulling away.
“We’ve had a couple guys that have been great in practice, been very consistent, that didn’t have good days today, and really caught me off guard,” Lonergan said. “I’m sure they’ll bounce back, maybe it’s first game jitters.”
And in a pattern that’s become familiar to those who watch the head coach’s approach, Lonergan walked away from a decisive win with a long list of things his team needs to build upon.
He hopes reinforcements will come soon in the form of senior forward David Pellom and freshman forward Kevin Larsen. Pellom, who’s out after undergoing wrist surgery in the offseason, has been practicing with sprints and drills, but has yet to return to contact play, Lonergan said.
And Larsen, who hurt his groin in a preseason practice, returned to the court today, but hurt his right ankle, leaving his status up to the team’s trainers, the head coach said.
“I’d love to get [Pellom] back and get Kevin healthy,” Lonergan said. “I think we’d be a much improved inside team.”