When Joe McDonald joined his team in the second half of their 69-47 stomping of La Salle Wednesday, he was dressed in sweatpants and a hoodie.
A hard fall on his right side early in the first half and several subsequent beatings going for layups and loose balls apparently tipped his nagging injury over the edge. Athletics communications officials said Thursday afternoon that they didn’t have an update on McDonald’s status.
His night was over, which didn’t do GW any harm. It was already rolling and had the Explorers under control. But if McDonald finds his hip to be in need of surgery, GW will be in a whole other world of hurt.
“We pray he’s gonna be okay and we’re just gonna find a way if he’s not,” head coach Mike Lonergan said.
That’s what a head coach has to say.
Losing fellow sophomore guard Kethan Savage last week hurt too. The team’s rising star and most explosive playmaker gone at least until conference playoffs sounded scary.
Many, though, still believed that the team could get it done – survive the tough Atlantic 10, end the season with 20-plus wins and grab an at-large bid to the Big Dance. And so far, the Colonials have proven that to be true.
A dominant win over George Mason and no sign of slowing down Wednesday against La Salle – a team that had beaten GW with Savage in the lineup – made the image of Savage on crutches easier to swallow.
But losing McDonald – the court general, the pace dictator, the soft-spoken point guard who takes hit after hit and usually gets right back up – stings even more. On the court, McDonald was easily the team’s best ball handler. He ranked seventh in the A-10 in assists (4.2 apg) and fifth in assist-to-turnover ratio (2.1).
With Savage already out and McDonald now on the bench in street clothes, Lonergan’s backcourt options against La Salle were extremely limited and untested.
Freshman point guard Miguel Cartagena received the call to start in the second half, but two quick fouls forced him back on the bench. As his team found continued success with their bigs in, the chances of him getting back on the court diminished.
“I told Miguel I wasn’t unhappy with him at all, but the reason I didn’t play him too much was because he’s so small and our 1-3-1 was really what I thought was winning the game for us,” Lonergan said. “And when he’s out, and Patricio [Garino] and [Maurice Creek] – even though they’re not true point guards – when they’re in there, it just gives us so much size.”
The next option: graduate transfer Creek. Stepping into McDonald’s facilitator role, Creek led the team with three assists, following up a George Mason game in which he had a career-high seven.
“We put him in a position he never plays, in handling the ball as a point guard, but he’s such a threat and he’s always going to come up with a big play,” Lonergan said. “It was nice to have Mo out there.”
Overall, though, the high-powered offense wasn’t nearly as imposing with its best shooter having to set up plays, instead of having plays set up for him. GW’s offense survived with Creek bringing the ball up the court, but that was with a comfortable 20-point lead.
The final, and most surprising option for Lonergan: sophomore forward Kevin Larsen.
The big man has talked all year about his smooth ball handling skills, and on Wednesday he finally got to show them off. After a shaky start, Lonergan said he thought Larsen was their “best matchup” and did a fine job controlling the ball and running the clock.
On one possession late in the second half, Larsen held the ball above the key with La Salle’s Jermaine Davis guarding. Larsen drove to his right, dribbled behind his back to the left side of the key, crossed over, stepped back and nailed an elbow jumper over Davis. A great play and a huge smile from Larsen as he trotted back down the court.
“It’s definitely different, but I feel comfortable doing it, especially with bigger guys on me,” Larsen said.
In McDonald’s short absence Wednesday, his teammates certainly picked up the slack. They turned a 15-point halftime lead into a 22-point win and did so without any lasting issues.
But if he truly is out for an extended period, though, the Colonials will either be forced to change their offensive identity or be ready to suffer some tough losses.