Men’s basketball opens Atlantic 10 play with win over Saint Joseph’s

Media Credit: Hatchet File Photo by Sam Frey | Hatchet Photographer

Freshman guard Justin Mazzulla dribbles up the court during a men's basketball game earlier in December.

Men’s basketball has struggled at the start of games this year, and players said the Colonials would need to turn that around in order to win conference games.

So when GW led by double-digits after less than 10 minutes of play during the team’s first Atlantic 10 game of the year against Saint Joseph’s Saturday afternoon, the Hawks appeared to be in trouble.

But the Colonials (8-6, 1-0 A-10) needed a solid defensive performance throughout the game and baskets during the final minutes to conclude their 70–64 victory over Saint Joseph’s (5-7, 0-1 A-10) at the Smith Center.

Although Hawks senior forward James Demery exposed gaps in GW’s defense numerous times and finished with a game-high 24 points, the Colonials’ man-to-man performance was the reason for the win.

“We had some hiccups, as everyone will, but for the most part this and the Harvard game were probably the two best scouting report games that we’ve played,” head coach Maurice Joseph said. “It showed in the other team’s shooting percentage.”

Saint Joseph’s shot 36.8 percent from the field and GW held senior guard Shavar Newkirk and freshman forward Taylor Funk – the two players Joseph said his staff was most concerned about – to a combined 3-for-17 shooting clip and a limited impact on the scoreboard.

On the other side of the floor, the Colonials starting guards each found success and forced Saint Joseph’s to tightly defend each one of them and spread out the floor. Senior guard Yuta Watanabe led the team with 18 points on 6-of-12 shooting and sophomore guard Jair Bolden and freshman guard Terry Nolan Jr. tallied 16 and 14 points respectively.

The trio combined for all nine of GW’s three-point baskets on the afternoon – tying the team’s highest total of distance shots in a game.

Sophomore forward Arnaldo Toro also garnered 10 points – all in the second half – and a game-high 12 rebounds. The Colonials finished with a six-board advantage, including 12 offensive rebounds on the game.

“I just tried to stay aggressive and play hard and get every rebound possible so we could get more possessions,” Toro said.

Joseph said Toro’s second half performance was among his best all year. He scored two important baskets to take back momentum and made all four of his free-throw shots.

“In terms of bouncing back this was probably his best game,” Joseph said. “He had a huge tip-in when we couldn’t seem to get a shot, and that’s him.”

Saint Joseph’s reached the line 24 times because GW – who entered Saturday with the third fewest fouls per game in the nation – committed 19 personal fouls, including hitting the arm of a jump shooter on multiple occasions.

“We got caught with our hands in the cookie jar quite a bit, we don’t teach that so we are going away from what we do,” Joseph said. “We just got caught reaching too much.”

Watanabe got the Colonials going early with two consecutive deep jumpers – one from behind the three-point line – for the first two baskets of the game. Bolden added to the Colonials momentum with two three-pointers of his own over the next two minutes.

GW’s hot start came after several days off due to holiday break. Joseph said he was impressed by his roster’s willingness to refocus and begin the conference season with energy.

“You want guys to just reset and come back energized after getting some mom’s cooking,” he said. “Our guys got that and came back all bright eyed and bushy tailed like it was the first day of practice.”

Free throws brought the Hawks within four points after seven minutes of play, but just 10 seconds later Nolan drained a shot from behind the arc to bring the momentum back on GW’s side.

Watanabe netted his third and fourth shots of the night and forced Saint Joseph’s to call a timeout in an effort to solve him defensively.

Whatever the solution was seemed to work. Watanabe – who had 10 of GW’s 22 points and was shooting 100 percent at the moment of the timeout – failed to convert for the next 15 minutes of game time.

A layup freshman guard Justin Mazzulla and two three-pointers from Nolan gave the Colonials a 30–18 lead after nearly 14 minutes of play.

During the last six minutes of the first half, neither team made a field goal and GW went into the break with a 30–23 lead.

In the second half, GW was more aggressive getting to the basket and relied less on its shooting ability.

Three-point plays from Toro and Watanabe and a jumper from Bolden built GW’s lead up to 18, but the Hawks slowly chipped away.

Despite Bolden and Toro beginning to find their stroke, Saint Joseph’s cut the lead to just five points with two minutes to play. Nolan said the team did not lose confidence as the lead dwindles, but instead turned to Joseph and the veterans for guidance.

“The leaders brought us in together and said stay cool, calm and collected and that’s what we did,” Nolan said.

Shots from Watanabe and Toro sealed the deal in the final two minutes, but the Hawks finished the game with a wide-open buzzer-beating dunk in transition.

The Colonials return to action Wednesday when they travel to Duquesne for their first road game of A-10 play. Tip-off is scheduled for 7 p.m.

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