This post was written by Hatchet staff writer Josh Solomon.
The sold-out arena in North Philadelphia was rocking late in the second half with a sense of tradition in the air and last year’s Atlantic 10 championship banner hanging from the rafters.
Saint Joseph’s had cut the GW lead to three points. Eight minutes before, they were down 20.
It seemed like the Hawks might have claimed the lead had the game lasted another minute – an impressive performance from a team that lost over half of its offense from last year. Last season’s team gave national champion the Huskies the biggest test of their tournament run.
Down the stretch, in which the Hawks went on a 30-13 run to close out the game, GW hung on. The Colonials would make a free throw, miss a free throw, rinse and repeat. Saint Joe’s gained momentum, but in one final trip to the line, up three, junior point guard Joe McDonald made his first and missed his second. Patricio Garino grabbed the board, and GW clung on to win 64-60.
“None of us thought we were going to lose this game,” junior forward Kevin Larsen said, who finished with 15 points, nine rebounds, five assists and three blocks. “We felt pretty confident through the whole game. We just stopped playing as hard as we did to get up by 20, and that’s something we have to correct.”
Saint Joe’s had frustrated the GW offense early in the second half. It wasn’t until freshman ball handler Paul Jorgensen subbed in that the team seemed to get rolling. First he found Larsen for a lay in from the post. Then on a defensive trap, he poked the ball lose, ran the fastbreak and yielded it to freshman forward Yuta Watanabe for the slam. The bench finished with 14 points, 12 of which came from Watanabe.
At that point, it was 44-26. The GW fans were cheering, with Athletic Director Patrick Nero sitting in the front of the section. Saint Joe’s called a timeout. GW would maintain a 20-point lead for another five minutes, until the eight-minute mark. That’s when it all came undone.
Saint Joe’s pressed in the full court, rattling the Colonials. GW’s defensive intensity died down. The Hawks were finding easier points as the Colonials couldn’t convert on offense.
“We let them back in by not communicating and executing,” Larsen said.
Head coach Mike Lonergan talked about “stupid mistakes” following the game, but said the score never would have gotten as close as it did if the Colonials had made their free throws down the stretch. GW went 14-24 from the charity stripe, a 58 percent clip.
To build that initial lead, the starting five displayed moments of brilliance in the first half.
Larsen was doubled in the post, and lone senior John Kopriva went to work, as he usually does at the start of a game. Then McDonald sent a crisp pass to Kethan Savage, who screeched to a stop in the corner in front of the Hawks bench and drained a three. He hit another a few possessions later from the other corner. Savage finished with three threes.
“I’m just confident,” Savage said, who finished with a team-high 16 points, adding six boards and four assists. “Our whole team is confident coming off of the Diamond Head Classic. We’re not taking anything for granted. It’s a completely new season. We’re 1 and 0, and that’s our mentality. We’re going to take everybody’s best shot.”
Savage’s swagger showed in his patience. In the first half, commanding the point, he showed no rush. When the Saint Joe’s faithful counted down the shot clock in front of him, he moseyed his way into the paint and laid it up and in just before the bell. In the second half, with the clock expiring and Lonergan yelling to shoot, Savage lifted leisurely, sinking another 3-pointer.
Tenacious man to man did the job, highlighted by a dominant rebounding margin on both the defensive and offensive sides. In the first half, GW out-rebounded Saint Joe’s 27-10, including 10-3 on the offensive glass. The Colonials outscored the Hawks 18-8 in the paint and 8-2 on second-chance points – on the way to holding their opponent to the second-least amount of points in the first half all season. They relinquished just a few more than they had to Grambling State.
Regardless of the second half unraveling, the Colonials came out with a win in their A-10 opener – a road win.
“This is the type of a game, to reach our goals, we need to win this game,” Lonergan said. “Like I said, hey, we’re up 20, we got a veteran team on the court and we just didn’t close out well, and I thought we would with the experience we had. Like I said, when you’re missing free throws, it unfortunately affects our defense and concentration. We got to get a little bit more mentally tough and close teams out.”