HONOLULU – Two days before Christmas, the Colonials (9-3) sat in the stands of the Stan Sheriff Center watching the home team, Hawaii, fight tooth and nail with No. 11 Wichita State (10-2), the national powerhouse that finished the regular season 35-0 last year.
The Shockers, as they usually do, won the game. But it took overtime, and the Colonials learned something beyond shooting patterns about their Diamond Head Classic finals opponent: They were beatable.
Two days later, on Christmas Day, GW did what Hawaii couldn’t, shocking the Shockers 60-54 Thursday to add a huge, resume-building win to the season and a shiny new trophy to the Smith Center’s collection.
“I don’t care who you are – if you don’t have the same jersey as us, I think you can be beat,” junior Kethan Savage said. “It’s unbelievable right now, the energy in the locker room. It’s going to carry over into our conference play. We just want to ride this wave.”
Savage came up with two critical steals converted to buckets to pull the Colonials, who trailed by as many as eight, back into the game in just over two minutes. He finished with the team lead in points with 12, followed by Kevin Larsen and Yuta Watanabe who each had 10.
“We always thought we were still in the game, but that was huge. We needed a stop like that, quick buckets, easy buckets,” point guard Joe McDonald said. “They had a lot of points off turnovers, a lot due to my part, but if we could do the same to them especially late in the game it was big.”
Down by one with 4:38 left to play, the Colonials stared down the national powerhouse as the Shockers passed around the perimeter, searching for an open look. Hands up, GW stalked each pass until the shot clock expired, giving the Shockers their third turnover in a little more than two minutes.
“Guys were yelling, telling each other, helping each other out on defense, and that was probably one of our best sequences this year,” Savage said.
Savage zipped off the bench. He missed a jumper, but on the next play dished the ball to Watanabe who hit for three. GW was then up by one.
A desperate Ron Baker airballed a three on Wichita State’s next possession, and Savage followed up by dishing it out again, this time to Larsen, who hit a triple of his own. The lead was then five points with 2:50 to play.
The teams traded a pair of layups and Savage hit a free throw, but that was the game.
GW found success with a crippling 1-3-1 defense that let the Shockers shoot just 34.4 percent from the field, where they made just one of their last seven attempts. GW stopped the likes of Fred VanVleet, Baker and Tekele Cotton enough to win while outscoring Wichita State 28-18 in the paint.
“We wanted to do some things to throw them off and to keep VanVleet – I think he’s one of the best point guards in the country – from penetrating,” head coach Mike Lonergan said. “And it’s also a good way for us to rebound because a lot of their best offense is when they just attack the glass.”
VanVleet was the only player on Wichita State’s roster to hit double figures. The Colonials still held him to 11 points as they set a Diamond Head Classic record for fewest points allowed, giving up just 153 points over three games at the event. They were stingiest at the line Thursday when the Shockers made just one of two free throw attempts, though GW was only 3-6 from the stripe.
Though the score was knotted at 28 at halftime, the beginning of the game elicited groans from the GW bench with offensive struggles of its own. The Colonials turned the ball over 10 times in the first half, one of which made Lonergan so angry he cut his lip gesticulating a little too wildly.
“I was bleeding all over the bench and it was awful, and I said, ‘We’ve got to win this game because I don’t want that being on TV,’” Lonergan said.
GW stayed in the game with the three ball, making nine triples on 15 attempts. The Shockers combined for 11 threes, but bricked the other 16 of their 27 tries.
“[Three-point shooting has] been our biggest weakness all year, and tonight I told them what I learned from [Hawaii’s semifinal game] against Wichita State is that you can’t play scared,” Lonergan said. “You’ve gotta take the open shots because it’s hard to get good shots.”
One of those threes came from Larsen, who was named the tournament’s MVP after scoring 34 points at the event. He added five rebounds, four assists and two blocks with two turnovers and a steal to his scoring against Wichita State. He led the team in rebounding and was second only to McDonald, with five, in total assists.
“It’s just a great feeling. That’s why we came here, to get the ‘W’ and win the tournament, and getting the MVP was just a plus,” Larsen said.
“I’m still undefeated in Hawaii. I went with my high school team and went 4-0 and now we went 3-0, so I’m still undefeated,” he added, grinning.
Back in a colder climate, next up for the Colonials is VMI on Dec. 30 at 7 p.m. in the Smith Center.