Men’s basketball pulled out its best first-half defense of the year Thursday night against Saint Louis – allowing them to grab a sizable advantage – but a second-half run stripped the lead away.
The Colonials limited the Billikens to 25 percent shooting and 21 points in the first half – the fewest they have allowed all year. They led by as many as 12 points with 22 minutes of basketball to play, but three consecutive deep shots capped off a 15-2 Billikens run that put GW behind with 11 minutes on the clock.
Saint Louis didn’t stop there. Despite responses from senior guard Yuta Watanabe, sophomore guard Jair Bolden and freshman guard Terry Nolan Jr., the Billikens improved their success getting to the rim and scoring on the interior.
By the last six minutes, the Colonials could not keep up with Saint Louis offensively. They trailed for more than one possession for the final five minutes.
GW (15-18, 7-11 A-10) allowed the Billikens (17-15, 9-9 A-10) to score 49 points in the last 20 minutes and eventually fell 70–63 at the Capital One Arena. The win earned Saint Louis a ticket to the quarterfinal round, where they will face Davidson Friday, and likely ended the Colonials’ season in the second round of the Atlantic 10 tournament.
“We played a great first half and they stormed back, made a bunch of shots and did a tremendous job,” head coach Maurice Joseph said. “Credit them – they did a tremendous job of making us stagnant in their 1-3-1. We didn’t do a good enough job of executing.”
GW’s defeat continued the team’s streak of winning one or fewer games in the conference tournament every year since the 2006-07 season – the last time the team won the A-10 title.
Despite the loss, Joseph said he saw growth in his team since the Colonials dropped eight of their first 10 conference games and were struggling earlier in the year.
“I’m extremely proud of our guys for how they responded to such adversity, being so young,” Joseph said. “Now I’m extremely excited to get into the off-season and build off of this momentum and really take things to the next level.”
Although the Colonials battled until the final seconds, they were without their top player for the final minutes. With about eight minutes left in the game, Watanabe went down with an ankle injury and never returned to the game.
“He has been the best defender on the team, the best scorer on the team and I have never played with a guy in my years of life that has done so much in a game and off the court,” Bolden said. “We weren’t able to get it done for Yuta tonight, and that’s tough.”
For the second consecutive game, Bolden was GW’s number one option on the offensive end. He led the Colonials with 16 points and four assists in 37 minutes of action. Watanabe, Nolan and graduate student forward Bo Zeigler all scored double-digits on combined 48.1 percent shooting.
During the first half, the Colonials commanded frontcourt action and outscored the Billikens 16-4 in the paint. GW finished the game leading by three rebounds – a statistic that Joseph said before the game would be vital to his team’s success or failure.
GW’s offense produced a similar output in both the first and the second half, shooting 46.7 and 42.3 percent respectively, but Saint Louis dominated the scoring as the contest progressed.
The Billikens connected on 66.7 percent of their shots in the last 20 minutes and caught fire behind the distance shooting of sophomore forward Jalen Johnson and the physical play of freshman forward Hasahn French. Johnson finished the night with a game-high 18 points and French recorded the matchup’s only double-double with 11 points and 10 rebounds.
Both sides – who each rely on their starting lineups – dealt with foul trouble during both halves. But Saint Louis had a better night from the line, going 21-for-36 from the charity stripe and relying on the one-point shots when going through scoring lulls.
“It was tough. French is such an aggressive player, that he always gets people into foul trouble,” Joseph said. “The guys that were fouling were the guys we needed to rebound. We needed those guys in there and that hurt us.”
After the Colonials fell behind early, due to contested makes from Saint Louis, a 10-0 run that was capped by a mid-range shot from Watanabe secured the lead GW would hold for the remainder of the half.
Baskets from Zeigler and Bolden twice helped the Colonials extend their advantage when the Billikens fought back. GW went into the halftime break with a 32–21 advantage and the confidence they held Saint Louis from scoring in their best part of the game – the interior.
Graduate student forward Patrick Steeves and Bolden made shots in the opening minutes of the second half, but the Billikens began to chip away at the lead.
Once the Colonials fell behind, they twice tied the contest back up at 47–47 and 52–52. But a layup and a three pointer allowed Saint Louis to take back the advantage in the following minutes.
As the clock approached zero, Joseph instructed his team to foul to extend the matchup. But after the Billikens made free throws and GW guards turned the ball over multiple times – the outcome was without question.