For the Colonials, two games made a world of difference.
Individually, GW’s back-to-back home contests saw a few slumping players shake their stalls, returning the court with reinvigorated effort characteristic of seasons past. Collectively, the matchups against Richmond, and now Charlotte, saw the team come together as one, playing a complete, full-court effort previously lacking.
And in the rankings, the Colonials’ (8-11) victories over Richmond and Saturday night’s 60-52 win against the 49ers bumped the team to a tie for fourth place in the Atlantic 10, just one game out of first. The two contests didn’t only maintain GW’s undefeated league record at home on the season, they gave the Colonials a winning record in A-10 action.
“We’ve always been on the same page. Things may be different, and people can talk about transition, or system, or the flex, to me, that’s a lot of garbage. We’ve got a system we believe in,” head coach Mike Lonergan said. “I’m happy for our guys. We played great D, we overcame horrible free throw shooting and we got a very important home win today.”
Against Richmond Jan. 18, it was junior guard Lasan Kromah who emerged as the team’s star, tying his career high and displaying the sort of tight, impressive game that made him a standout player his freshman season. But facing the 49ers, it was sophomore forward Nemanja Mikic’s time to return to form.
After leading all Division I freshman in three-point shooting last season, Mikic struggled to echo his rookie performance this season. But things clicked for the sophomore Saturday night, draining three treys and adding 19 total points, leading all scorers and setting a new season high. It was a performance that showcased how the forward’s skills have developed this season: though he found success from long range, he hit baskets from all areas of the key. Mikic scored 11 points in the second half alone, adding seven during GW’s crucial 12-3 run.
“It feels great,” Mikic said. “Last year, I was only a three-point shooter, but this year, the goal was to help me become a better basketball player. I think it helps me a lot. I became a little more versatile, and in general a better basketball player.”
Mikic credited his teammates for putting him in the right place at the right time, and GW’s 13 assists were a sign of the play-making that gave the forward his timely opportunities. Kromah was the next-highest scoring Colonial, adding nine points and six boards, grabbing three steals, followed by senior guard Tony Taylor, who put up eight points, four rebounds and five steals. At one point, Taylor was sidelined for a good portion of play with foul trouble, and junior guard Bryan Bynes stepped up in his absence, posting eight points, three boards and three assists – including a three-pointer of his own.
After the Colonials scored the opening four points, Charlotte came roaring back, leading by as much as 12 points on the first. GW’s shots weren’t falling, the players were visibly frustrated, and it bore the hallmarks of the snowballing breakdowns that had doomed the team earlier in the season.
But this time, the Colonials remained focused, closing the gap to three points by halftime. And after the break, GW never looked back, recording 39.6 percent shooting from the floor on the game. It was the sort of surge the team hadn’t been able to execute in previous matchups, and it’s evidence of a gameplan finally clicking, Lonergan said.
“Well, we were up 4-0 and the next thing I knew, it was 11-4. Truthfully, we had kind of that look when we had that four-game, or whatever it was, losing streak at home. And we tried to call timeouts, tried to put some different guys out there, and I thought it was huge that we made a run late in the first half,” Lonergan said. “I felt really good going into the half, we were only down three. And then it was important for us to score right away to start the second half, because we really get our energy defensively when we’re scoring.”
It wasn’t the Colonials’ most dominant offensive performance, but it was backed by one of the team’s strongest defensive games of the season. After allowing Charlotte the early lead, including one point where the 49ers recorded around 50 percent shooting from the floor, GW buckled down defensively, holding Charlotte to 36.7 shooting on the game.
The Colonials switched from a zone defense to a 1-3-1, a risky maneuver considering the 49ers’ depth from deep, but a necessary chance, Lonergan said, in order to stop Charlotte forward Chris Braswell, who added 17 points on the night. All night, the team utilized their defense to the fullest, shaking off any hints of poor shooting with renewed energy at the other end of the court.
“It was really to stop Braswell. Braswell was killing us, and I give him credit, he was going one-on-one from the top of the key, we didn’t think he was capable of that. And he was really scoring,” Lonergan said. “We went to the 1-3-1, even though they’re a good three point shooting team, to keep him from really scoring. And with Lasan up top, it gives you a lot of length, and Nemanja on the wing, and we did a pretty good job of that.”
The last two matchups saw junior forward Dwayne Smith and senior forward Aaron Ware join GW’s starting lineup, a new reshuffling of the Colonials that added a strong physical edge to their starting five. Looked to for commanding defensive play, Smith and Ware rose to the challenge, pulling down seven and 10 boards, respectively (a career high for Ware). The Colonials owned the total rebound battle 41-36, using a 12-4 advantage on second-chance points to boost their lead, and clearing the paint effectively all night.
Frustrated, Charlotte’s play took a decidedly physical turn, sending the Colonials to the line 25 times. Though at times play was heated and tension visible, GW remained calm, keeping their focus amid the 49ers’ increasingly desperate play. They couldn’t, however, fully take advantage of the opportunities at the charity stripe, shooting just 52.9 percent from the line, a downfall that’s haunted GW all season.
“At the beginning of the game they tried to bump us off our cut to the screens, stuff like that,” Kromah said. “We took advantage of that and attacked back.”
Next, the Colonials are back on the road, traveling first to La Salle Jan. 25 and then heading to Fordham Jan. 28. Lonergan outlined clearly the need for the team to build on its recent successes at home on the road, knowing GW needs to carry its momentum to Philadelphia and New York.
His players agreed, and both Kromah and Mikic echoed their coach on another sentiment. The team’s recent successes isn’t a sign that at one point, the coaching staff and the players were on different pages. It’s a sign that the Colonials’ approach is working.
“We were always on the same page, it’s just more chemistry and everybody gelling together and just us executing the plays,” Kromah. “We’re in about 18, 19 games now, and everything is just gelling and going good. It’s just timing.”