Men’s basketball is ranked 100 spots higher than New Hampshire on college basketball analyst Ken Pomeroy’s current rankings – out of 351 teams.
So when the Wildcats started finding gaps in GW’s defense Wednesday night and led for the majority of the first half, the Colonials unexpectedly had to find a way to turn the tables.
Veteran players – senior guard Yuta Watanabe and graduate student forward Patrick Steeves – stepped up and scored a combined 41 points, helping the Colonials secure the lead and ultimately their sixth win of the season.
But GW’s victory at the Smith Center came down to the wire. The Colonials (6-6) were only able to pull out a narrow win over New Hampshire (3-9) 68–64 because the Wildcats continued to shoot well and finished with a 52.1 percent clip from the field.
“Especially at home, one game left before conference play, we want to try and build as much momentum as we can,” head coach Maurice Joseph said. “We are going to have to continue to do that.”
The win ended GW’s two-game losing streak and marked the third consecutive game where the Colonials have trailed by at least 12 points in the first half and returned to outscore their opponent in the final 20 minutes.
Joseph said he harps on his team’s early challenges during practices and before games.
“We have got to continue to figure out how to be more locked in on the defensive side of the ball especially in terms of schemes stuff, scouting report stuff,” Joseph said. “That we talk about on a regular basis.”
Much of GW’s success came from the team’s ability to take advantage of New Hampshire’s zone defense and find openings on the inside. Although it took some time to adapt, the Colonials outscored the Wildcats by 12 points in the paint and drew 20 fouls on the night.
“We didn’t know that they were going to play zone for 40 minutes,” Steeves said. “When you play a team like that it is kind of funky, it is hard to get a groove.”
During the contest, Watanabe picked up his third double-double of the season with 18 points and 11 rebounds and tied former GW forward Isaiah Armwood’s career blocks total as the No. 6 highest tally in program history.
Steeves finished with a season-high 23 points on 9-of-12 shooting and a team-high five assists. He said the veteran-led comeback came just from him and Watanabe playing their roles and knocking down shots.
“That’s just what we have to do in those tough situations when we are down, coming back against a team who we believe we can beat,” Steeves said.
The duo helped GW garner more possessions than the Wildcats by staying aggressive on the offensive glass. Watanabe and Steeves combined for nine offensive rebounds on the night and as a team, the Colonials scored 16 second chance points.
“We challenged our guys at halftime to go offensive rebound,” Joseph said. “We wanted to make sure that we came out and attacked the glass because if we weren’t going to hit a bunch of shots, let’s go get second chances.”
Although GW started with a small lead, the Colonials fell behind early after a 16-0 New Hampshire run exploited problems in the home team’s defense.
During their run, the Wildcats relied on distance shooting, a strength that GW’s defense had a tough time stopping. New Hampshire finished the game shooting 10-for-18 from behind the arc – the most threes that GW has allowed in a game since opening night.
Sophomore guard Jair Bolden snapped the scoring streak with a three from the top of the key, and an alley-oop finished by freshman guard Terry Nolan Jr. offered GW some momentum with almost 10 minutes to go. But New Hampshire still led by eight points with less than five minutes to go in the first half.
Both Watanabe and Bolden were aggressive on the ball and drew contact in the final three minutes of the first half to earn trips to the charity stripe. Although the Colonials were unable to shoot consistently from the line, the points added up to an 8-0 run that knotted the score at 29.
GW finished the night shooting a below-average 14-for-23 from the free-throw line. Joseph said the showing was not good enough, but it’s not a concern because the Colonials work on that part of the game every day.
“Free throws is a funny deal. There is nothing you can do to work on it, but work on it,” Joseph said. “We didn’t shoot great, but we knocked some down when we needed to and we are going to keep working at it.”
Two mid-range jumpers allowed the Wildcats to regain the lead and go into halftime ahead of GW 33–29.
The second half did not start with momentum completely on one side or the other, but a corner three from Watanabe gave GW a 41–39 advantage with 13:11 remaining on the clock. It was the team’s first lead in more than 20 minutes of game time.
The Colonials were ahead on the scoreboard for the remainder of the half and led by as many as eight points with less than one minute to play.
But a buzzer-beating three-pointer from New Hampshire made the game’s final score suggest that the final minute was closer than it was. GW led by at least two possessions for the last 3:29.
The Colonials return to the Smith Center Saturday when they host Harvard (4-6) at noon for their final non-conference matchup.