It’s not often that a basketball game doubles as a history lesson.
When the Colonials traveled to the Cintas Center last season, they held a slim lead at halftime off the strength of their three-point shots, before falling prey to second-half Xavier runs and clutch Tu Holloway points. Wednesday, the Colonials were up three at the half, off the strength of baskets from beyond the arc.
Then, they were unseated by a 13-2 second-half Muskateers run, the lead volleying back-and-forth until a clutch Tu Holloway basket put Xavier up by a point with 30 seconds on the clock. With a final possession left, the Colonials couldn’t convert a shot, falling 59-58.
History repeats itself. But this time, it came with a silver lining.
“It’s tough. It’s like déjà-vu. You don’t want to see that happen,” senior guard Tony Taylor said. “I think we played extremely hard today. I think all the guys were engaged in coming out and playing really hard today. And I think we did it, we just came up short.”
There was a lot on the line with 30 seconds on the clock. Out of the timeout, the Colonials (8-14) were down by a single point to Xavier. Out of a timeout, the ball was supposed to go to Taylor. But Xavier’s man defense was a step ahead, shutting the guard down so completely that junior guard Bryan Bynes was forced to drive to the basket. His shot was no good, and GW bobbled two put-back attempts.
It was the same scenario, the same point margin as GW’s Dec. 15 loss to Bradley.
“I don’t think we were thinking about anything else but the loss right there. We had three opportunities on the last possession, and Xavier did a good job of just denying the ball,” Taylor said. “We tried to run a play for myself and they did a good job of denying me the ball.”
The final play was an indication of Xavier’s commanding post presence on the night. Picking up a slim 41-36 advantage on the boards, the Muskateers bested the Colonials 28-14 in points in the paint and 8-2 off second-chance points.
The effort was there, Lonergan said. The Colonials battled, not giving up on rebounds until the ball was solidly in Xavier (or GW) hands. In the end, the Muskateers were able to just slightly edge GW under the net, capitalizing off their size and athleticism.
“I thought we executed the game plan, and I thought we played hard. I’m embarrassed to say it, we haven’t played hard every game this year. I wish I knew the reason,” head coach Mike Lonergan said. “I told the team I wasn’t mad at you, because you got good shots. The last play, obviously, broke down. We ended up getting a pretty good look and the tip-in didn’t make it. But up until that point, I thought we executed.”
GW was determined to find away around Xavier’s defense, and they found the answer beyond the arc. Against the Muskateers, the A-10’s leader in three-point field goal defense, the Colonials sunk 10 treys, their second-highest amount of the season.
Leading that charge was sophomore forward Nemanja Mikic, who netted a season-high five three-pointers, which helped translate into 19 total points, echoing his season-high in that category. After the game, Mikic gave the credit for his hot shot to the rest of his teammates, pointing out the team’s 13 assists on the night as a sign of its cohesive, unified offensive attack.
“I think we shared the ball pretty good today. We had 13 assists, which is pretty good. In my case, it helps me a lot that I started at the power forward position. Usually, there’s a taller guy guarding me, so it helps me a little to get open,” Mikic said. “Most of them were pretty good passes to me and the ball was always coming at the right place at the right time.”
Joining Mikic on the scoreboard was Taylor, who posted 20 points, dished out five assists and pulled down four boards. Junior guard Lasan Kromah earned his second double-double of the season with 11 points and a career-high 14 rebounds, and junior forward Dwanye Smith pulled down seven boards and added a block on the night.
Joined by Bynes, the five comprised the Colonials’ defense-heavy starting lineup. And with zero bench points on the night, they also carried GW offensively– but their 36.1 percent shooting from the field wasn’t enough to overcome Xavier’s furious rally. GW couldn’t always convert crucial layups, and gave away free points with 50 percent shooting from the line. Xavier held GW without a shot, until the final play, over the last four minutes of the game.
“They won the game and they made plays when they had to. But, you know, we made shots throughout the game. In the last 4:28, I thought we controlled the tempo. We got good shots for our best players, and we just could not make an open jump shot,” Lonergan said. “Obviously, we don’t have an inside game. Our inside players combined for, I think, one basket. With no bench points at all.”
With 14 minutes and 21 seconds left to play in the first half, the Colonials held a nine-point lead. It would be their largest of the game, the Muskateers slowly but steadily climbing back before a roaring Smith Center crowd.
GW attempted to trap Xavier with a 2-3 zone defense, looking to trap its big men and force turnovers. At first, the Muskateers struggled to find away around the Colonials’ pressure, but ultimately posted a 41.5 shooting percenatage on the night. They were mainly carried by Holloway, who added 21 points to the board, and particularly commanding for Xavier under the net were 6-foot-5 freshman forward Dezmine Wells and 7-foot-0 senior center Kenny Frease, who pulled down seven and six boards, respectively.
“We were trying to do what we’ve done all year, and play good team defense. And I thought that Tony always plays good D, Nemanja now the last nine, 10 games, has been great. He had to guard a post player, a six-ten guy, but I thought his help defense was excellent,” Lonergan said.
It was the second heartbreaking loss in a row for GW after a rally against Fordham fell short Jan. 28. Taylor and Kromah both crouched down on the court, hiding their faces after another gut-churning defeat.
Injured junior forward David Pellom walked onto the court, pulling Taylor to his feet. The loss stung, Lonergan said. But unlike GW’s history of losses this season, it wasn’t quite as demoralizing as the ones that have preceded it.
“This one hurts, probably more than any other loss this year. But it won’t hurt twice as much after watching the film, like some games this year. We’ll try to bounce back and play well against a very, very good UMass team. The league is tough and we have to keep getting better, but we got better tonight, a little bit,” Lonergan said.