HARRISONBURG, Va. – It was, at the same time, the most dramatic and the most anti-climatic finish of GW’s young season.
There were 7.2 seconds to play. GW (3-3) was only up by a basket. And it was James Madison’s ball. Out of a break, freshman forward Patricio Garino stole the ball, ran it back, was fouled, and sunk both of his shots to put the Colonials up by four. And as JMU tried to return it down the court, senior forward Isaiah Armwood picked off a pass and the two teams thought the game was done.
But the referees headed to the sideline and called a jump ball that gave JMU possession with 1.2 seconds to go. As the clock ticked out, the Dukes sunk a three at the buzzer that was just a point shy of tying it. And GW walked away with a 54-53 victory.
“I got lucky, I think, a little bit. They threw a floater, and it wasn’t a really good pass, and I got the steal,” Garino said.
The Dukes opened with a full-court press, a defensive maneuver that usually spells trouble for the Colonials. Wednesday night was no exception, with GW turning it over on their first four possessions and allowing James Madison to go on an early 4-0 run.
It was a start that would shake GW’s confidence for the rest of the low-scoring half, the Colonials shooting just 36 percent and turning it over 11 times before the break. And again, like in Monday’s Mount Saint Mary’s game, the team struggled to establish an effective transition game in the face of the press, something the Dukes exploited to the tune of an 11-3 advantage on fast break points.
“We just wanted to take care of the ball better. We knew that we were struggling to score,” freshman guard Joe McDonald said, who added that the team focused on beating a press over their off day. “Breaking the press, and looking forward to the next person open definitely was going to help us out.”
But GW managed to dig itself out of an eight-point hole. The team doubled down its focus on defense once it became obvious that shots weren’t falling. A switch into the 1-3-1 zone halted JMU’s momentum, keeping them at 37 percent shooting for the half.
The Colonials were having trouble in transition, and Lonergan said the 1-3-1 was designed to aid the team get back into the paint. It was a dangerous defense, he added, but one that paid dividends.
“It takes some of the penetration away,” Lonergan said. “We were able to not let them take advantage of having our point guard on their big guys. Joe is a pretty tough kid.”
In the final possession of the half, James Madision took it down the court and missed an initial shot attempt, before grabbing the rebound, and putting it back for a tying jumper at the buzzer. It was the signal of what the rest of the game would become: a back-and-forth battle of two teams struggling to find their shot.
The scoring went back and forth, each team claiming the lead for brief stints.
GW couldn’t continuously sink open looks, shooting 38.2 percent on the game. The shooting struggles, not an unfamiliar sight for the team, made it even more vital to get the ball inside, Lonergan said, where the Colonials could best capitalize on second chances.
“I say we just throw the ball inside every time,” Lonergan said. “That’s going to free up, in time, an open shot.”
The Colonials were able to maintain pace with JMU, which shot 40.4 percent, due to their size advantage. There were possessions that saw GW get beat along the baseline. The team posted a convincing 40-28 victory on the boards. It was a shot of energy that made up for the team’s lackluster bench performance – just five points – and helped to reduce the impact of poor shooting in the paint and from the line.
“We struggled to score, and to give them some credit, they came after us defensively pretty hard. If you’re going to have a low-scoring game, you definitely have to win the battle on the backboards,” Lonergan said.
Three of GW’s players finished in double-digits. Freshman forward Kevin Larsen scored 12 points and nine boards, senior guard Lasan Kromah posted 10 points and four rebounds, as well as five assists, and McDonald added 12 points, two rebounds and three steals.
Amwood pulled down eight rebounds on the night, and junior forward Nemanja Mikic, who only had a single trey on the night, worked to make up for it on the boards, gathering six rebounds. And Garino, who set up the night’s final play, added nine points, five assists and four steals.
After exiting the first without a single basket, Garino epitomized the fighting spirit of many Colonials in their second road win.
“I never gave up,” Garino said. “I wasn’t here the first half, but I kept playing. Even when it wasn’t going in, I had my confidence up, and I [still] shot it.”