Following GW’s blowout loss to No. 14 VCU, Rams head coach Shaka Smart said he couldn’t think of a better defensive performance from his team than the one it had just put on in the second half of the game, when the Colonials made only five baskets on 19.2 percent shooting.
The game was a battle for first place in the Atlantic 10 between two teams known for outstanding defensive play, though GW hasn’t branded its strong D against three-pointers and use of the 1-3-1 the way VCU has with its “havoc” pressure.
By the end of the night, the “havoc” was the clear winner.
“I just thought we weren’t committed to playing team defense,” head coach Mike Lonergan said. “Some of our guys when they’re not scoring, it really affects their defense in a negative way. We’ve talked about that all year, but we’ve got to figure out a way to change that.”
Though they did force 16 turnovers while allowing just 14 shots, VCU’s defense demolished the Colonials with more than just a strong press. The Rams’ halfcourt defense was just as deadly, and VCU focused less on getting early traps than on wearing down the Colonials, forcing them to make poor decisions at the end of possessions. GW was constantly passing the ball and yet finished with just three assists.
The Colonials were forced to swing the ball around the perimeter, searching for looks that weren’t there, especially as 6-foot-6, 250 pound sophomore Mo Alie-Cox owned the center to deny the Colonials’ passes to the inside.
“He’s so darn strong and he’s athletic, so that’s a tough combination,” Lonergan said. “We don’t really have a power forward like that.”
Alie-Cox finished out the first half for VCU after subbing in for Justin Tillman with the game tied and 6:25 left on the clock. During that stretch, VCU outscored GW 10-2 with Alie-Cox contributing four points, three rebounds and a block while guarding Kevin Larsen into no shot attempts, no rebounds and a turnover to put the Rams up by eight at the half. Alie-Cox finished with 10 points on perfect shooting and eight rebounds. VCU outscored GW by 19 points in his 22 minutes and by just five when he was not on the court.
He drove Larsen into the ground, combining with Tillman to hold GW’s primary big man to one point and five turnovers, though he did collect a game-high nine rebounds. Larsen made just four shot attempts and only two in the paint. The worst stretch for the Colonials came in the form of a 1-19 shooting stretch in the second half that epitomized their settling for desperate outside shots: 1-6 on layup attempts, but 0-12 on jump shots, nine of which were from beyond the three-point arc where they’d made just one shot all night.
After Alie-Cox stole the ball from Kethan Savage in the halfcourt and slammed a posterizing dunk over him, belly flopping to the ground and pushing back up from his knuckles to rabid cheers from the crowd, he guarded Larsen as he got set to inbound the ball. Arms outstretched, Alie-Cox jogged in place, his nose inches away from Larsen, staring at the GW forward like he was his next meal.
“He’s a guy that if you look at statistically, when you look at he’s in the game versus when he’s out of the game, he’s the most important guy on our team,” Smart said.
The Colonials were hoping to get out in transition, trusting their ball handlers to protect the ball. Though they scored nearly a third of their points (14) off the break, eight of those points came before VCU started its run around the six-minute mark in the first half.
It wasn’t nearly enough, especially as GW could never sink its teeth in on the defense, allowing more than 70 points for just the second time this season, the first in a loss.
GW started well, getting a steal on VCU’s opening possession and holding down the middle, resulting in a handful of errant three-point attempts from VCU.
After the Rams had missed several shots from long range, Lonergan moved into the 1-3-1 with Yuta Watanabe at the top, but the Rams effectively set screens to burn him for a series of open looks.
That, plus Larsen’s nonexistent scoring and John Kopriva’s inability to rebound, pushed the Colonials to go to man coverage where they were consistently torched inside.
“I think they got out in transition a little bit more and pressured as well, so it turned into a little bit of a layup line, dunks and stuff,” Savage said. “I just think the second half, they ran the pressure a little bit better.”
After GW led 16-12 in the paint at halftime, VCU took over in the second half to make the final margin 40-26 in the Rams’ favor. VCU didn’t shoot three-pointers well all game – 20 percent in the first half and 28 percent in the second – but after chucking up 15 attempts from distance in the first, the Rams moved away from the long ball in the second, cutting that number to seven.
Lonergan said he expected GW’s halfcourt defense to perform better and that he didn’t anticipate the way VCU, especially on the wings, was able to motor past his defenders in man-to-man coverage. The Rams hit 48.6 percent of their shots in the second half.
The Colonials outsized VCU everywhere, but were still out-rebounded by 11. VCU pulled down 47 boards, including 17 off the offensive glass.
“That’s an area I thought was the key to the game, but I just think that was a lot of effort and us not boxing out, and they just manhandled us on the glass and we stood around a lot,” Lonergan said.
They looked lethargic and, toward the end of the game, exhausted by VCU’s “next man up” approach. Smart played 10 players in the first 10 minutes of the game, and no one played more than Melvin Johnson’s 25 minutes for VCU, while Larsen played 37 for GW.
As the Colonials grew more fatigued and the VCU crowd smelled blood, it seemed Briante Weber’s headband was the least of GW’s worries.