PITTSBURGH – Just as the clock ticked under one minute at PPG Paints Arena Thursday, Saint Louis guard Aaron Hines released a three-point attempt that would have put his team up by two.
The 11th-seeded Billikens had led the contest for more than 36 minutes and looked poised to end the sixth-seeded Colonials’ season prematurely, after opening a 25-13 halftime lead.
The shot bounced off the rim and looked as if it was going to roll in – but, in almost gravity-defying fashion, popped back out and into GW’s hands.
On the very next possession, junior guard Yuta Watanabe drew a foul and sank both free throws, extending his team’s lead to three.
Men’s basketball did not allow the Billikens to score for the remainder of the game, hitting its shots from the charity stripe to close an impressive come from behind win – its sixth straight.
The Colonials (19-13) defeated Saint Louis 53–46 after their slow start was turned around by strong defense in the second half. They now advance to the quarterfinal round of the Atlantic 10 Championship where they will face No. 3 seed Richmond (19-11).
“We’ve come back from big deficits before this season and I was glad to see our guys dictate how they wanted their season to end. It wasn’t going to end tonight” interim head coach Maurice Joseph said. “I’m proud of the guys and how they fought back but we’ve got to make sure we find a way to move on now and prepare for the next team because this league there are no off days.”
After GW had its lowest scoring first half since 2012, the Colonials were forced to play from behind for the majority of the game. The team’s 36.2 overall shooting percentage was its lowest since Feb. 8.
It was defense that ended up giving them the edge. The Billikens (11-21) were held to 34.8 percent from the field and turned the ball over 13 times in the final frame.
Sophomore guard Jordan Roland and Watanabe, especially, highlighted an aggressive GW defense that switched to playing a 1-3-1 zone after early challenges. The duo led the Colonials to nine team steals and 13 more points off turnover than Saint Louis.
“The last few games the 1-3-1 has worked well for us, we’ve caused some damage with Yuta and Jordan up-top and our activity has been great,” graduate student forward Tyler Cavanaugh said.
Watanabe finished with a game-high 18 points shooting 8-for-17 from the floor. Roland was the only other Colonial in double-digits with 10 points. Cavanaugh, who was quiet from the field, finished with a game-high 16 rebounds.
GW, who boasted the highest three-point shooting percentage during conference play, uncharacteristically struggled from behind the arc. They missed their first 13 shots from distance and finished with a 4-for-20 clip.
For more than half of the opening frame, the game did not resemble postseason basketball. The Colonials made only one of their first 14 shots while the Billikens held a slightly better 3-for-14 clip.
Freshman guard Jair Bolen ended a six-minute scoreless streak for GW, but it did not shift the momentum, trailing just 7–4.
The Colonials only mustered up five points in the first 14 minutes as Saint Louis started to find the basket. The Billikens knocked down two three-pointers and led by as many as 12 points, looking much more comfortable on both sides of the floor.
Down 25-13 at the break, the Colonials were shooting just 23.1 percent from the field and were 0-of-8 from deep.
“We were missing shots, we were taking too many threes, we were settling, we weren’t getting it inside, credit to them,” Cavanaugh said. “We were pressing in the first half. We have to go out and have fun and just play.”
The Colonials came out for the second half with much more energy and an improved defensive effort. GW went on a 10-0 run fueled by Watanabe who scored three baskets during the stretch and had full-court pressure on Saint Louis’ guards.
Although the game was suddenly within reach, at 27–23, the Billikens had a response to the Colonials momentum. They sunk their third three-pointer which rolled into a 7-0 run for themselves.
GW returned the punch right back. Jordan Roland scored seven consecutive points for the Colonials including two fast break finishes after steals on the other end.
A three-pointer from redshirt junior Jaren Sina and a layup off a turnover by redshirt senior Matt Hart tied the score up for the first time in the game.
The two squads traded made shots before Bolden connected on his only three of the game from the left wing.
“Defense definitely fuels us…but at the end of the day you’ve to put the ball in the basket to get on a run” Cavanaugh said. “We were fortunate enough to do that on the other end.”
GW never let the Billikens regain the lead and closed the night off with its largest lead.
Friday’s matchup with the Spiders is set for 8:30 p.m.