The four-tenths of a second put back on the clock were supposed to be a formality.
Junior guard Yuta Watanabe had just nailed a corner three to put GW up 53–52 – what a delirious Smith Center crowd thought was a buzzer-beating game-winner.
Interim head coach Maurice Joseph and his staff hurried their team’s celebration off the court knowing the game might not officially be over. In fact, just four days earlier, the Rams had miraculously overcome a one-point deficit at St. Bonaventure in an eerily similar situation.
With the game clock reset to 0:00.4, 6-foot-11-inch sophomore Collin Goss entered the game for the first time to guard the VCU inbound. As Goss followed his man on the baseline, he didn’t see a last-second screen set by JeQuan Lewis to his left. He barreled into the VCU senior guard and, in an unimaginable turn of events, sent Lewis to the charity stripe with the game on the line.
VCU’s leading scorer, who was held to just eight points on the night, sank both for the win. The Rams (19-5, 9-2 A-10) second straight dream-like victory handed the Colonials (12-12, 4-7 A-10) a nightmarish 54-53 loss that left fans, players and coaches stunned.
“[The loss] hasn’t really hit me yet,” freshman guard Jair Bolden said. “It’s very shocking for me. But [VCU] ran a great play and it is tough, it is real tough, especially for the freshmen – the younger guys who haven’t really experienced something like that. But we’ll get through it together.”
“It’s a horrible way to lose a game,” Joseph said. “Yuta hit a tremendous shot, we played our tails of for 39 minutes 59.6 seconds. I just feel bad for our guys.”
Up until the thrilling final minutes, GW played one of its best defensive games of the year against a skilled local rival that walloped them by 30 points less than a month ago in Richmond.
In stark contrast to the teams’ last meeting, in which VCU scored 41 on 50 percent shooting, the Colonials stymied the Rams’ attack on their home floor during the opening period.
Against GW’s 2-3 zone for the majority of the frame, the second-best offense in the league was held to just 22.2 percent from the field – going to 2-for-11 from deep – to tie a season-low half total of 21 points.
“We knew when [VCU] went with their two bigs, we wanted to keep them out of the paint,” Joseph said. “So we had a two-man zone with our big guys to clog up the paint. When they went with one big, they don’t have a ton of shooters out there outside of Lewis. The chess match worked for us, we guarded them for close to 40 minutes there.”
While the home team did not fare much better on the other end – shooting 25 percent in the half – gritty performance from Bolden and graduate student forward Cavanaugh helped the Colonials to a 23-21 edge at the break.
The rookie guard got GW’s attack going early while Cavanaugh, added 10 hard-fought boards in the frame, consistently posed a threat down low.
The pair would go on to lead GW with a game-high 13 points each on the night, as Cavanaugh secured his eighth double-double of the season with a monstrous, career-tying 17 rebounds.
VCU picked it up offensively in the second half, going 50 percent from the field and matching GW’s 17 rebounds in the half despite dropping the overall battle on the glass 43-39. The Rams also outscored the Colonials 18-8 in the paint in the second frame.
However, GW stayed in the game with slightly improved shooting and minimizing turnovers – its eight on the night was a season-low in conference play.
After holding a lead for nearly four minutes, the Colonials conceded a 7-0 run late in the second half that put the visitors ahead 50-46 with 2:37 to play.
Freshman forward Arnaldo Toro, who finished with six points and three rebounds responded with a hook in the paint to bring his team within two. Both teams traded 1-for-2 trips to the line to make it 51-49.
With 1:30 remaining Joseph turned to a raucous Colonial Army behind his bench to ask for some more noise – it was the most pivotal stop his team needed all night.
Graduate student forward Patrick Steeves came up with a forceful rejection under the rim, Cavanaugh managed a steal on VCU’s subsequent inbound, but after GW regained possession, Steeves committed a travel on the other end.
After intentional fouls, Lewis and Bolden went on to make one each at the charity stripe. The score stood at 52-50 when Lewis missed the front-end of another trip at the line.
With 10.2 seconds to go, GW hurried down the floor. A pump-fake from redshirt junior guard Jaren Sina preceded a perfect dish to Watanabe in the corner, but the last-second make would not prove to be enough.
“I was extremely impressed [with our resilience],” Joseph said. “I just feel so bad for our guys because we deserved to win that game. They were so fired up before the game, they were ready to go ready to play. It showed – we guarded our tails off the entire game.”
Tillman finished with a team-high 11 points and 11 rebounds for VCU, and redshirt freshman Samir Doughty was the only other Ram to finish in double-figure scoring with 10.
“We are really going to see what our character is about in how we react and how we overcome this,” Joseph said. “There is no question in my mind that we will be able to bounce back from this.”
The Colonials return to action Saturday at 4:30 p.m. when they host St. Bonaventure.