BROOKLYN, N.Y.- It would be easy to overlook tonight’s ending as one stereotypical of GW’s 2012-13 season: lost by a thin margin in the final seconds.
That would be discounting the multiple players who were performing through injury. It would be discounting the thin trickle of blood that ran down freshman forward Patricio Garino’s forearm after a particularly ugly first-half foul. It would be discounting the grimace on freshman guard Kethan Savage’s face as his ankle was taped so he could return to the floor.
It would be discounting that Massachusetts head coach Derek Kellogg called his team “very fortunate” to have escaped with a 77-72 victory in the first round of the A-10 tournament. It would be ignoring the Colonials’ effort Thursday night.
“I think we played really hard. That’s what I love about this team. I think we always come to fight,” freshman guard Joe McDonald said. “We just came up a little short this time.”
The Colonials (13-17) were within three of Massachusetts at halftime, thanks to two key factors of their play. One, rebounding, was somewhat expected. The other, GW’s success at the line, arguably was not.
The team went 13-15 at the line in the first half, an 86.7 percentage that was a marked departure from the lackluster free throw performances in recent games. It was an important improvement for the team, who saw its shooting ability slip a little over the first 20 minutes of play. The Colonials had many chances, but struggled to convert, missing layups and jumpers en route to a 9-34 first-half shooting performance.
Adding to the first-half frustrations was GW’s 0-5 shooting from three, a statistic Massachusetts took advantage of by sinking three treys of their own.
“The second half was much better, our free throw shooting was better, but we were 0-8 from threes,” head coach Mike Lonergan said. “We’ve got to keep that lead.”
Still, over the first 20 minutes of play, neither team’s energy dampened. There were nine ties and five lead changes before the break, with each side battling to maintain an ever-slim lead.
This fighting mentality was crucial to GW’s performance. Once, twice, thrice it would strike at the basket, earning an 11-6 margin on second-chance points and a 29-16 advantage on the boards.
That tenacity, that follow-through, didn’t quit after the break. The game came down to the wire, and GW toughed it out, ending with a crushing 50-32 rebounding advantage.
“We have pretty good size in there with [senior forward] Isaiah [Armwood], so if the guy has a ball and drives it or something, that’s fine with us,” Lonergan said.
But the shooting struggles haunted the Colonials until the end. They finished the game shooting just 38.8 percent, a 26-67 performance. The team struggled at times against the Minutemen’s press, too, with 18 turnovers over the game.
Further hurting GW was its 0-8 performance from beyond the arc, a crippling statistic given Massachusetts’ seven treys over play. Three of those came from former Colonial recruit Trey Davis, who seemed to nail crucial buckets every time the ball was placed into his hands. Redshirt junior guard Chaz Williams, too, seemed determined to will his team to victory, making crucial driving layups down the stretch.
“[Williams] sort of took over, with his speed. I think we had some tired legs, and just didn’t get back on defense,” Lonergan said. “We made some mistakes, left Trey Davis open for wide-open shots. Those were key plays for us.”
GW hung on through its defense. Crushing Massachusetts on the offensive boards was a key part of the Colonials’ gameplan, and the one-two punch of Armwood and freshman forward Kevin Larsen in the low post proved lethal at times.
The heavy-pressure zone kept Massachusetts from boxing out and it drew costly fouls that saw two Minutemen sit down in the final five minutes, including their-then leading scorer, Terrell Vinson.
“I knew we had to mix our defenses up,” Lonergan said. “Even with the four or five point lead, I knew we were going to have to score more.”
Larsen was one of four players who scored in double digits for GW, adding 17 points and seven assists. Senior guard Lasan Kromah added 11 points and four assists, while McDonald posted 10 points, three assists and four steals.
It was Armwood who was the monster for the Colonials, though. He recorded his ninth double-double of the season with 16 points and 13 assists – but said he wasn’t playing with a chip on his shoulder after being passed over for A-10 awards earlier this week.
“I play like that every game, especially on the boards, so I was playing like that because we wanted to win. We wanted to move on and advance to the next round,” Armwood said. “We didn’t want to come up here and say we came to Brooklyn for fun.”
And so, though it will be easy to look back at this game for everything it was not, it may be more important to examine what it was. It was GW’s first A-10 championship game on a neutral site since 2007. It was a high-stakes, high-pressure environment.
And it was a sign that this program could have a bright future.
“I’m not a good loser. It’s hard to finish the season 13-17, 10-21 last year. Our schedule is going to be really tough next year,” Lonergan said. “I think we’ve got a good nucleus now.”