After falling to VCU by 24 points in January, men’s basketball pulled off its most notable win of the season in front of a raucous Smith Center crowd Saturday.
The Colonials (12-15, 5-9 A-10) utilized a dominant offensive first half and a smothering defensive effort to upset the Rams (15-12, 7-7 A-10) 80–56 – GW’s largest win of the season.
The win is just the program’s third all-time against VCU. The Rams were on a four-game series streak coming into the afternoon.
“I think we can beat anybody in the conference,” sophomore forward Arnaldo Toro said. “Right now we are the highest we have ever been. We are playing together and I think that is going to carry us a long way.”
Senior guard Yuta Watanabe led the game with 23 points and nine rebounds, and freshman guard Terry Nolan, Jr. racked up 18 points and four rebounds. Toro ended the night grabbing a team-high six rebounds and 11 points.
The night’s win was the first time GW defeated the Rams at home during Watanabe’s four-year career.
GW shot a 52.6 percent clip on the night – their second-highest shooting percentage in conference play – and held VCU to 37.3 percent shooting from the field, the lowest percentage allowed since December. The Colonials have now scored 80 or more points in three of its last four games.
GW’s defense outplayed VCU, picking up 12 steals, seven blocks and 21 points off of 17 VCU miscues.
“We limited the time where they were able to trap, press and you always want to do that against VCU, it’s tradition, it’s always been our goal,” head coach Maurice Joseph said. “It’s a lot easier said than done most of the time but you want to be able to get the ball off the rim and go like we were able to do.”
In their last match up against the Rams, the Colonials played from behind the entire game, but on Saturday the Rams led for a total of two minutes and six seconds during the contest.
GW finished with a season-best 45 points in the first half, one point less than the highest scoring half the team’s had all year.
After trading baskets with the Rams in the game’s opening minutes, GW’s offense picked up its momentum starting with timely three-point shots from Nolan in the first half to keep the score tight.
Nolan went 2-for-3 from beyond the arc on the night and 5-for-10 from the field overall.
In the final six minutes of the first half, Watanabe hit four consecutive shots, including two three-pointers, to crack open an 18-2 GW run.
“I missed first two shots, but I knew I was going to make a shot so every time I touched the ball, so I tried to be aggressive,” Watanabe said.
The guard capped the run with a three-pointer after a shot blocked by VCU senior forward Justin Tillman went straight to Watanabe, who was wide-open on the left corner.
Heading into the break, the Colonials led 45–27. VCU’s top scorers, senior guard Jonathan Williams and Tillman, had scored just three points each. The latter of the two, who averages 19.3 points per game, still tallied a double-double with 11 points and 13 rebounds for VCU.
In past games, the Colonials have had trouble playing with a lead. Despite picking up victories against La Salle, Massachusetts and George Mason, GW was outscored in the second half of each outing after leading by double-digits.
Against the Rams, GW continued to dominate the floor after the break, outscoring VCU 35–29 in the second frame.
The Colonials went 4-for-4 from the field to open the second half. A dunk from Watanabe with just under 10 minutes left in the game pushed GW’s lead to 30 points and sent the crowd to its feet.
“I feel like they had more fans in the building than us, but we were certainly louder we were certainly more engaged just really happy for our program, happy for our team,” Joseph said. “We have got to enjoy this one then wash it away and get ready for the next one.”
Freshman guard Justin Mazzulla, who went scoreless in the first half, knocked down a shot clock-beating three-point shot to give the Colonials a 74–41 advantage and their largest lead of the night with six minutes left to play.
The Colonials return to action Wednesday against Richmond at the Smith Center. Tipoff is slated for 7 p.m