As the Colonials took the court Saturday afternoon at VCU, they saw many things they’d seen before. Blanketed by boos at 8,000-force, they looked up at the rabid sold-out crowd all decked in white. The boos turned to cheers as members of the Rams’ pep squad ran out onto the court, their leader carrying a giant, black-and-gold flag emblazoned with the word “Havoc.”
A few things had changed, though. VCU’s Havoc defense wasn’t as unrelenting as it has been – the Rams didn’t press on every possession the way they have in the past – and the Colonials’ ball-handlers were better prepared to withstand the pressure, bringing in a 72‒69 win that snapped VCU’s 12-game winning streak.
“That really means a lot, not being pressured the whole game,” senior forward Patricio Garino said. “I think you’re not rattled the whole time, not knowing that they’re coming for you and pressing. I think it gives you a little more composure and you’re a little more relaxed. Now that we have more ball-handlers, I think being patient and just making the right pass at the right moment is a lot better than being pressured the whole time.”
GW does have more ball-handlers this year. Graduate student guard Alex Mitola played 21 minutes, backing up senior guard Joe McDonald’s 35. The two combined for four assists, two turnovers and four steals.
Both head coach Mike Lonergan and Garino mentioned Mitola’s ball-handling after the game, touting it as a product of his smarts and experience. Mitola is averaging 1.67 turnovers per 40 minutes this season.
McDonald is averaging 1.82 turnovers per 40 minutes, down from 2.12 last year and 2.96 the year before. He’s able to play off the ball more, which he likes to do, and not being the only true option for the team at the one has freed up his game. Backup point guard Nick Griffin, who transferred at the end of last year, averaged only 1.59 turnovers per 40 minutes but struggled to add assists or rebounds to his arsenal of weapons and was only able to play 7.9 minutes per game.
“Last year, we had a backup guard that just wasn’t capable of playing at this level,” Lonergan said.
Griffin only played six minutes at VCU last year, in a 24-point loss in which the Colonials shot only 26 percent from the field and committed 16 turnovers. This time, GW coughed up the ball only 10 times, including just twice in the second half.
Having multiple ball-handlers seems to help a team sustain composure and win big games.
We all know that the last three National Championship teams have been led by dual-point guard backcourts (Peyton Siva and Russ Smith for Louisville in 2013, Shabazz Napier and Ryan Boatright for UConn in 2014 and Tyus Jones and Quinn Cook for Duke in 2015).
GW’s backcourt didn’t have to withstand the same kind of pressure that old VCU teams brought. The Rams still pressed, but not as often or as aggressively.
“I think our game plan and preparation is easier to understand for this type of VCU team than others in the past, and I just think our team was really focused on understanding what we had to do,” McDonald said. “It was pretty simple and laid out for us.”
Part of that was personnel. VCU graduated defensive specialist Briante Weber, who is currently playing in the NBA Development league, last season. Lonergan refused to let anyone Weber was guarding bring the ball up the court in previous games at VCU.
“I still have nightmares about that kid and his headband,” Lonergan said. “But I’ll tell you, their point guard now? Woof, he’s become a terrific player.”
VCU point guard JeQuan Lewis scored 16 points and added five assists and one turnover. His teammate Doug Brooks, the Rams’ leading swiper, had three steals in the game.
VCU does still lead the A-10 in turnover margin and in steals, both by solid margins, leading Lonergan to believe that the change rests closer to his squad’s development than VCU’s new strategy. The Rams often used a 2-2-1 zone to press, which switched into a matchup zone in the half-court.
“The Havoc was great,” Lonergan said. “I think we’re better now. I think we could have handled more of the Havoc if it was the old Havoc.”
Now, the Colonials did some work on defense themselves. VCU had been averaging 83 points per game before Saturday, and GW held the Rams well below that mark. From Yuta Watanabe’s defense around the rim to GW’s length causing problems the Rams couldn’t solve, to the switching and trapping that helped hold Melvin Johnson to 4-for-13 shooting to Kevin Larsen and Tyler Cavanaugh filling the lane, the win Saturday hinged on the Colonials holding the Rams to 39 percent from the field.
All that while Lonergan peppered the gumbo with some 1-3-1, used intermittently so that the Rams were caught off guard. Mo Alie-Cox said after the game that the team had designed sets where players would flash against the 1-3-1, but players weren’t making their cuts which got VCU’s offense out-of-whack on those possessions.
Still, good defense has been the hallmark of the last few Colonials’ programs. GW has the personnel, and has had the personnel, to be a very good defensive team. What the Colonials haven’t always had was the backcourt depth and experience to be up to VCU’s challenge, whatever form it takes.
So when the Rams started running away at the beginning of the second half, all too familiar a scene for Lonergan, those changes helped the Colonials climb back in. But it wasn’t the same scene, thanks to the seasoned backcourt and the merciful graduation of Weber. By the time McDonald hit a free throw to give the game its final score, the final thing that had changed was the outcome.