With three minutes and 51 seconds left to play, senior forward Isaiah Armwood rose up at the top of the key and drained his first three-pointer of the season. No less than 45 seconds later, from the same spot at the top of the key, he drained his second. It was a now a five-point game.
Unfortunately, for the rest of the Colonials squad, that was as close as they would get. A 4-0 La Salle run immediately following the baskets extended the lead back to nine, silencing the hard-fought comeback. It was a comeback that saw the Colonials go on an 18-3 run after being down by 20 points, but ultimately fall short, losing 80-71.
“We got it down to five with at least two and a half minutes left,” head coach Mike Lonergan said. “I think we just got a little too excited there and didn’t play solid defense.”
Besides a late surge in the second half, the rest of the game showed few signs of success for GW (10-10, 4-3 A-10). The Colonials looked lost on both ends of the floor during much of the first half, and the Explorers made them pay.
Coming in as one of the best three-point shooting teams in the conference, ranking sixth in the A-10, La Salle easily lived up to its reputation. Neither the Colonials’ man nor zone defenses could freeze the Explorers’ hot hands as they went on to shoot 50 percent from behind the arc in the first.
“They spread us out, and then when we switched defenses they hit some really big threes when they needed them,” Lonergan said.
Possession after possession, the Explorers found an open D.J. Peterson or Tyreek Duren in the corner, and possession after possession, they nailed wide-open threes. Peterson, who led all scorers at the half with 12 points, shot 4-for-5 from three in the first, already eclipsing his career high for three pointers in a game. At one point in the first half, with six minutes and 51 seconds left to play, La Salle had more three-point field goals, seven, than the Colonials had overall, six.
Further constraining GW’s inability to get out on shooters was the shake-up in La Salle’s starting line-up. Opting not to go with his usual four-guard lineup, head coach Dr. John Giannini started center Steve Zack. Likely put in to disrupt Colonial duo Armwood and freshman forward Kevin Larsen, Zack was most effective at the top of the key, moving in and out of screens for the Explorer guards – disrupting the coverage of the Colonial defenders.
On offense, the Colonials were just as confused, throwing passes out of bounds and committing 10 turnovers that led to 16 points for La Salle in the first half. By comparison, GW had zero points off of turnovers at the break.
“I give them credit. Their switching defense hurt us,” Lonergan said. “We got the ball inside, and they did a good job digging in, and we turned it over a lot. Just looking at the stat sheet, that really hurt us.”
At the start of the second half, it looked to be more of the same for the Colonials, as they continued to look overmatched against a quicker and more experienced team. But then the comeback began.
GW stepped up its intensity, matching the Explorers’ speed on defense and getting out in transition. The Colonials stepped into a full-court press on defense, repaying the Explorers for the high number of turnovers they had forced, and clawing their way back into the game. With the guards still unable to create anything off the dribble though, GW was forced to change gears.
“I just said we had to play more aggressive because they were switching everything,” Lonergan said. “And they’re all guards, so we really don’t have that guy that can beat a guy off the dribble against a player like they had, so we just had to rely on being aggressive in transition.”
Even more aggressive was Lonergan’s decision to draw up some outside plays for his big men – specifically Armwood. Looking to create mismatches at the top of the key and hopefully drive to the basket, it was certainly unexpected for Armwood to rainbow in two treys.
“If I get it and I’m open, I’m gonna shoot it,” Armwood said. “But Coach Lonergan designed the play for me to step back and knock it down, so I just shot it.”
But the surprise buckets couldn’t make up for GW’s sloppy first half, as La Salle stayed poised with time running out. Down the stretch, the Explorers hit their last six free throws, going 17-19 on the game, highlighted by perfect 10-10 shooting from the line by guard Ramon Galloway.
Armwood led the way for GW with 17 points and nine rebounds, while senior forward Dwayne Smith and freshman guard Patricio Garino both added 11 points. Overall, the Colonials controlled the paint, garnering a 38-22 advantage, but the 24-6 points off of turnover margin ultimately set the two teams apart.
The loss especially hurt for the Colonials as their recent three-game winning streak and potent starting lineup was speculated to have produced a revitalized GW roster.
“It was kind of like we reverted back to our old ways,” Lonergan said.