Flashes of the dominant Colonials that head coach Mike Lonergan envisions are there.
They shone through against Rhode Island Wednesday night as GW (6-10) battled at the boards, striking once, twice, three times before finally looping the ball into the net. They were there as the Colonials converted three possessions into fast breaks in quick succession, sprinting down the court and turning them into three baskets and an And-1.
What makes those moments, Lonergan said, is effort. He knows his team isn’t a strong shooting team, and he knows the Colonials struggle defensively. But with hard, grinding play, GW can emerge victorious – and that’s exactly how the team picked up its first A-10 victory against the Rams, 69-61.
“We’ve been practicing well, so I’m really just happy for the guys that they were rewarded finally with a win,” Lonergan said. “There were a lot of mistakes, but I’m fine with the mistakes if we’re playing hard. And we weren’t playing hard, especially at home, which has been disappointing. But the guys played hard tonight.”
One of the biggest indicators of the night’s effort came in a halftime adjustment to GW’s man defense. The Rams entered the break just a point ahead of the Colonials, drawing much of their offensive power from 71.4 percent shooting from three-point range. At the break, Lonergan’s assistant coaches and senior guard Tony Taylor persuaded the head coach to allow Taylor to switch his coverage to Rhode Island sophomore guard Billy Baron, responsible for three of the Rams’ treys. That switch, Lonergan said, was the key to GW keeping Rhode Island from scoring a single threeball in the second.
“Tony’s got a high basketball IQ and he doesn’t make as many mistakes. My assistants told me to put him on Baron, I don’t like to do that because it takes so much energy,” Lonergan said. “And Tony had asked to guard Baron as well, which is what you want. It’s what you want from your best players, you want them to rise to the occasion and accept that challenge.”
The renewed defensive energy that followed the coverage shift translated across the Colonials’ presence on the floor. After the Rams shot an even 50 from the field in the first, GW held them to 30.3 percent shooting on the second, often forcing Rhode Island to rush their shots or lob the ball in desperation. GW slammed home six blocks, four alone from graduate student forward Jabari Edwards, forced 10 turnovers and grabbed five steals.
But the Colonials’ greatest battle – and the one that held the key to the victory – was waged at the boards. GW outrebounded the Rams 41-34 on the game, including a commanding 10-3 offensive rebounding edge in the first. The unrelenting pressure on the glass was key to halting Rhode Island’s attack and to mounting the Colonials’ offensive.
“I think we’re playing defensively, we’re getting opportunities, we’re rebounding and we’re getting opportunities to run, and that’s when we’re best,” Taylor said. “And then we have our secondary offense and it’s very hard to stop. Especially when we’re executing.”
After games where Lonergan said the team was moving away from his preferred flex offense, the Colonials seemed to find easier rhythm tonight, improving from 43.3 from the floor in the first to 59.1 shooting in the second, finishing with an even 50 percent shooting on the night. GW’s defense flowed into the offensive front, most notably in a stretch of play during the second that began with junior guard Lasan Kromah grabbing a defensive rebound. He shot the ball down to Taylor, who layed it in, drawing an And-1 in the process. Then, junior forward David Pellom stole the ball on Rhode Island’s next possession, sending it to Taylor before regaining possession to slam home an alley-oop fast break. Kromah followed that basket with another defensive rebound, this time finding junior forward Dwanye Smith for the layup.
It was an energetic, quick series of plays that energized the Colonials and their fans. The night was not without its mistakes, to be sure. On a few possessions, GW showed signs of the shooting troubles that have plagued the team of late. On others, the Colonials simply couldn’t execute their plays, circling the ball until the shot clock ran out. Mistakes happen, Lonergan said, but they’re lessened when the team raises their performance level in other areas – like the night’s 15 Colonials assists.
“We got the lead up there and I thought we were going to kind of win going away, and then we made some really silly mistakes, and I didn’t do a good job in timeouts and getting our players to understand what we were doing on out-of-bounds plays, and we just didn’t execute,” Lonergan said. “We made some plays when we had to, and that was nice to see. We had 15 assists, which is a lot for us.”
Lonergan’s underlined effort from the beginning of the season, and seemed heartened in the press conference after Wednesday’s game, pointing to the point spread on the stat sheet as an important positive for the Colonials. Taylor paced the team offensively, scoring 18 points, dishing out six assists and grabbing four boards. Though he saw limited action, sophomore guard Dan Guest posted five points in three minutes of action on the first, earning a loud cheer from the crowd as he exited the court. Kromah finished with a double-double, 12 points and 10 boards, adding five assists and three steals.
The highlight reel player of the night for GW was Pellom, who capitalized on his athletic dunks and added 17 points to the board. He earned a double-double, pulling down 11 boards, an important statistic in the post-up style of play Lonergan envisions. Heading into the game, Pellom, the A-10 leading FG percentage shooter, was fourth in the nation in field goal percentage, and Wednesday’s effort will likely vault the forward to the second-place slot, an idea he couldn’t help but grin about after the game.
“It feels good. For me, I’m just taking the best available shots on most of them, and dunks. I usually just stick my head around the rim and somehow come up with the ball and finish,” Pellom said.
After capping a quick two-game slide against Rhode Island, the Colonials hit the road again, traveling to Cambridge, Mass., to take on Harvard Saturday. Tip is set for 2 p.m. – and Taylor isn’t about to lose touch with the feeling GW walked away with against Rhode Island.
“Any time you lose a game it hurts. It hurts a lot, especially with the guys in the locker room, the coaching staff, we all have a desire to win,” Taylor said. “We’re practicing so hard, we’re pretty much working so hard, when we’re not rewarded by a win, it’s always tough, but I’m just glad we got an A-10 win today.”