Senior guard Tony Taylor could sum up GW’s loss in one word.
After dropping a heartbreaking, tightly contested game to Xavier Wednesday, the stage was set for the Colonials to ride that momentum into Saturday’s match against Massachusetts. Instead, GW struggled to overcome the visitors, falling 86-75 for the Colonials’ (8-15) fourth-straight loss. And Taylor could point to the source of the unraveling play instantly.
“Defense,” Taylor said. “We would come down and get a quick score, and then they would come down and hit a three. Or we’d turn the ball over, when we’re down seven, we would turn the ball over, and they would get an easy dunk. That’s what really kept us from closing that gap today.”
A major key to the night’s play wasn’t found on the box score, but was clearly visible on the court. Massachusetts boasts a strong, athletic roster, and before the season, head coach Derek Kellogg adjusted his game plan to fit the natural abilities his players brought to the court, tinkering with an offense and press defense that highlighted the Minutemen’s skills.
Their athleticism was on full display in the Smith Center, the hallmark of circling dribble routes that eventually would their way around the waiting Colonials, or fast runs that left GW in their dust. It was really those open looks that were GW’s undoing. The Colonials earned a slight 40-38 edge in points in the paint, their highest number of points in that category in 10 games. But GW’s gritty scores couldn’t compete with their struggles to control in transition, to overcome their own poor shots.
“When you take bad shots, contested jump shots, or get your shot blocked down your throat, that usually leads to dunks, and layups. You don’t really have time to get back on defense,” Lonergan said.
A example of the Minutemen’s long-range success was found beyond the arc in the first half. Massachusetts shot 40 percent from three before halftime, and the Colonials didn’t net a single trey. GW closed the game with a 12.5 shooting percentage from three-point range, echoing its lowest total of the season in that category.
“I thought we kinda overcame our defensive problems, and they shot 55 percent from the field. And we’re 2-for-16, after shooting, I think, 10-for-20, for threes. In our own gym, from threes,” Lonergan said. “That’s not going to get it done.”
Massachusetts put up the most points an opponent has scored against the Colonials this season, and it was GW’s defense that was to blame, Lonergan said. In a cycle that’s become customary for the team amid defensive struggles this season, the Colonials tried multiple schemes to limit Massachusetts. Switching from man configurations to a 1-3-1 zone, nothing seemed to stick against the Minutemen’s 55.4 percent shooting.
The underlying problem was effort, Lonergan said. A far cry from the fast-paced, intense play against Xavier Wednesday night, the Colonials looked flat at times Saturday. Listless, overly relaxed play opened holes in GW’s defense the Minutemen were quick to exploit.
“They’re a predominately right-hand team, they all like to go right, that’s all our scouting report was, and they beat us right the whole game. Chaz Williams is tough to stay with, so we tried to play the 1-3-1, and they tore us apart and got open threes,” Lonergan said. “We did not play tough with the basketball. We coughed it up, or took a bad shot, and it lead to a dunk at the other end.”
And as it’s prone to do, the ripple effect of a lack of effort spread to the Colonials’ offense. Down the stretch, it seemed GW couldn’t catch a break. The team would score, and then Massachusetts would answer with a bigger basket. The Colonials would make a crucial stop, then be unable to put the ball in their own net.
Many times, GW’s possessions were ruined by sloppy ball control. Massachusetts had eight steals and the Colonials had 14 turnovers on the night, blunders the Minutemen converted into 17 points. The battle on the board was dead even, at 33 apiece, but GW couldn’t back it up by hanging onto the ball.
“We just cut corners all the time, and that hurts you against a good team. Their energy was better than ours, and we just have a lack of production at certain positions. And it’s hard to overcome,” Lonergan said.
Massachusetts brought a trapping, pressing defense to the court, a few times forcing the Colonials to step out, or travel. Once, sophomore forward Nemanja Mikic was forced to whistle for a timeout, unable to inbound past a jumping Minuteman. But, in Lonergan’s eyes, even the heavy defensive pressure coupled with the fast tempo set by Massachusetts wasn’t wholly culpable for GW’s struggle for control.
“I thought the sloppy ball handling was more a result of us being weak with the ball,” Lonergan said. “I don’t know. Just losing the ball. I wish I knew what it was. The turnovers against a team like that, that’s athletic, they lead to dunks. And layups. And that’s frustrating.”
With the Colonials struggling from long-range, it was Taylor who once again put the team on his back in an effort to carry it to victory. He posted 26 points, a new season-high, adding four boards and five assists in an effort where he was, at times, clearly the hardest working, fastest player on the court. Junior forward David Pellom provided a spark of energy with his return to the lineup, adding nine points and pulling down 10 rebounds.
Though junior guard Lasan Kromah was dominant on the glass, grabbing eight rebounds, his five turnovers on the night contributed heavily to GW’s struggles. It was junior forward Dwayne Smith who put up a solid two-way effort for GW, establishing himself as the team’s grittiest presence in the post. He netted 16 points, a new season-high for the forward, and was crucial in containing Massachusetts’ big man, redshirt senior center Sean Carter.
“I was trying to play him physically, because that’s a big emphasis on our team, to play strong. Coach Lonergan does a good job to motivate us to play strong in the post. So that was a big emphasis,” Smith said.
Smith picked up on Lonergan’s emphasis heading into the game, but it was clear the head coach didn’t think that focus extended across his entire roster. Frustrated by the back-to-back home losses, Lonergan was disappointed as he surveyed his team’s performance postage.
“People can see from the stands. It’s no secret what went on out there. I wish I could figure it out. When you don’t have depth, you can’t really bench guys and it’s tough,” Lonergan said. “We’ve got to keep getting better. I’m happy Tony’s playing at a high level and Dwanye gave us what we need, some inside scoring. I don’t think we were very good defensively, as a team and individually tonight, and that cost us the game.