NEW YORK CITY — Rematch.
This is a completely different GW team than the one that barely snuck into last year’s Atlantic 10 Championship, but the opponent will be the same Saturday: Massachusetts.
The Colonials may hold the higher seed heading into the A-10 quarterfinals matchup, but the Minutemen certainly hold the recent upper hand. Additionally, they represent the first obstacle in GW’s path to its first conference title since 2007.
“Right now, we’re looking at it like a one game tournament,” senior forward Isaiah Armwood said. “First game Friday, Saturday, Sunday – don’t want to look too far ahead. If we get the win tomorrow night, then we’ll worry about Saturday. Get it on Saturday, we’ll worry about Sunday.”
UMass made it one-and-done for GW last season by delivering a five-point heartbreaking loss that left then-freshman forward Kevin Larsen with his head in his hands.
Even more, the Minutemen were the only team this season to overcome GW’s homecourt advantage, handing the Colonials their lone home loss of the season back on Feb. 15.
“We know we play one of the best teams in our league. I know they finished sixth, but they have the second-highest RPI in our whole conference,” head coach Mike Lonergan said. “And they beat us at home, so hopefully our guys will be motivated – it’s our only home loss.”
Following the loss, the Colonials took care of business, going 4-1 and winning their last four games to leapfrog the Minutemen for third place. The victories have virtually sealed a spot in the NCAA Tournament for GW, regardless of how the team performs in the A-10 tournament.
In that time, UMass – once the No. 13 ranked team in the country – went 3-2.
“If we were on the bubble like some teams are, we would be playing hesitant, we would be trying to do everything perfect,” Armwood said. “[Winning those games] allows us to play loose and have no worries. We’re going to play like we did when we were younger. We’re going to go out there and play basketball – we know how to do it.”
For the past week, it’s been rest, practice and steak dinners for the Colonials.
A week of rest and practice after their regular season-ending victory over Fordham, capped off by a visit to alumnus and trustee Randy Levine at his New York Yankees steak house.
The Minutemen, on the other hand, were busy preparing for their first-round matchup against Rhode Island, in which they came back from an 11-point deficit to advance last night. The Colonials will have the fresh legs, but UMass will have the swagger from a comeback victory and on-court experience at Barclays Center.
Over the course of the season, UMass has excelled in three areas of the game: scoring the basketball, protecting the paint and sharing the ball.
The Minutemen finished the regular season ranked first in the conference, averaging 76.9 points per game. First Team All-Conference point guard Chaz Williams, who finished the season averaging 15.7 points per game, leads the potent offensive attack.
Williams averages a league-best 7.1 assists, complemented by a 2.2 assist-to-turnover ratio, to keep his team ranked first in the conference at 15.7 assists per game. As a team, UMass finished the regular season with the lowest turnover margin of any team in the A-10.
“They got a great team, but they’ve got one really special player [Williams] that’s hard to guard for anybody, so we’ve got to do a really good job,” Lonergan said.
If the Colonials is to have success against UMass on Friday, they will have to lock down Williams, similar to how Rhode Island did in its almost-first round victory. Slowing down the senior guard, ultimately slows down the Minutemen’s entire offense. Against the Rams Friday, UMass shot just 31.5 percent from the field as Williams put up only 11 points.
On the defensive end, the Minutemen rank first in the conference in both defensive rebounding and blocked shots. Anchored by junior Cady Lalanne, UMass pulls in 26.2 defensive rebounds per game, while averaging 5.8 blocks.
Graduate student Maurice Creek, who averaged 22 points over his last three games, will look to beat the Minutemen defense and remain hot despite the time off. Unfortunately, it’s still unclear if he will have back his wing mate – sophomore Kethan Savage – who Lonergan said will likely play limited minutes, if any.
“It would mean a lot. We worked hard to be where we are at now,” Creek said. “We were picked 10th in the league and to finish 3rd shows how hard we worked in the summertime and how hard we worked in the wintertime. So to come out here and win the A-10 championship, that would mean a lot.”
Tip off for this year-in-the-making rematch is at 9 p.m. at Barclays Center in Brooklyn, N.Y.