Down two points with under a minute to play Saturday afternoon, the Colonials were in desperate need of a stop – a tall order for a team that conceded a season-high 53.7 percent shooting clip to its opponent on the day.
Freshman Collin Smith got the next best thing, fouling USF forward Luis Santos, who missed both of his free-throw attempts. GW took the ball up and called a timeout with 26 seconds remaining.
The team’s final possession, however, did not go as planned: freshman forward Arnaldo Toro’s pass to graduate student Tyler Cavanaugh was tipped but then recovered, and eventually found the hands of Smith at the top of the key with three seconds left.
The 6-foot-10-inch center heaved up a three-ball that banked off the glass and in, handing men’s basketball (5-3) an electrifying, 68-67 comeback victory at the Smith Center.
“We tried to get the ball to our best player, Tyler Cavanaugh, and the play broke down…So when [USF] went to go double Matt [Hart], I got the ball back and was like ‘well, here we go,'” Smith said. “I shot it, just using my instincts, tried not to hesitate and it went in.”
In addition to his late game heroics, Smith had a career day with a team-high 22 points and 4 steals while adding 8 rebounds. The big-time performance, followed closely by Cavanaugh’s 16 points and 5 rebounds, was sorely needed as GW was without junior guard Yuta Watanabe and graduate student guard Patrick Steeves, both sidelined by injury.
“[This is a] resilient group of guys,” interim head coach Maurice Joseph said. “We are making some young mistakes, I’m making some young mistakes coaching-wise. Tyler Cavanaugh had foul trouble in the first half, we got injuries, you can make all the excuses in the world but I am proud of our guys for how resilient they have been.”
Despite the strong finish, defensive stops were scarce for GW all afternoon. The visitors marched to a 19-9 lead to open the contest, by making eight of their first nine field goal attempts against GW’s permeable 2-3 zone defense.
Exploiting GW’s lack of size down low in the absence of Watanabe and Steeves, the Bulls (4-3) scored 20 points in the paint and outrebounded the Colonials 13-10 during the first half, in addition to going 5-for-10 from deep and 62.5 percent from the field.
A number of hustle plays and steals from Smith sparked an offensive surge midway through the frame that helped GW close the gap to 21-18.
Minutes later, the Colonials lost some of that momentum when a post-whistle scuffle between Cavanaugh and USF’s Geno Thorpe resulted in double technical fouls and sent GW’s star to the bench for the remainder of the half.
Both teams then traded double-digit runs to close out the first period as GW switched to a man-to-man defense.
“I was happy with our man-to-man…We are going to continue to switch up some defenses depending on matchups and depending on scouts and personnel of the other team,” Joseph said. “We tried to do that today, the zones didn’t work out the way we wanted it to or expected it to and that is going to happen.”
Freshman guard Jair Bolden cut the Colonials’ deficit back down to three points (35-32) heading into halftime with a nearly half-court buzzer beater.
Bolden would finish with a career-high six points and three assists, guiding the bench alongside redshirt senior guard Matt Hart who scored seven of the reserves’ 14 total points.
“[Bolden and Smith] grew up today…I’ve been working them, I’ve been forcing them to grow up faster than it is fair of them to expect, but it is the hand that we were dealt,” Joseph said. “To end the [first] half with a buzzer beater and to end the game with that shot from two freshmen, go figure.”
Both teams battled back-and-forth to maintain the lead in the early going of the second half with Cavanaugh back on the floor.
Another solid outing from starting freshman forward Arnaldo Toro (8p) was also an important contribution GW needed. The first-year big led the Colonials with nine boards – six coming in the second half – as the home team fought back to finish the contest with a 33-32 edge on the glass.
A 7-0 USF run spurred by star sophomore guard Jahmal McMurray (16p) put GW back in a 57-50 hole. The Colonials regrouped after a timeout and responded with a run, and stops, of their own. Crucial buckets from Cavanaugh, Hart, Smith and Bolden put the game back within reach.
The Colonials then did what they do best, and got to the free throw line. Down 65-60, Cavanaugh would go 3-for-5 and Smith a 2-for-2 from the charity stripe down the stretch. On the day, the team shot 17-for-27 at the line to USF’s 2-for-4.
“I am proud of our guys, I am proud of the way we have been fighting back in these close games and hopefully we can continue to grow,” Joseph said. “My message has been win or lose, we are going to go to work, we are going to continue to grow. Today, we took another step forward.”
GW takes on Florida State (6-1) at 4 p.m. Sunday as part of the BB&T Classic at the Verizon Center. Joseph said he is unsure whether Steeves will be available against the Seminoles, and a team official said the forward’s injury is undisclosed.