ST. LOUIS — The men’s basketball team had several possessions and scoring runs that kept the Colonials close with the No. 10 team in the country.
Saint Louis would make a run, GW (20-7, 8-5) would push back, but forced errors and a debilitating defense would lead to a 66-59 loss for the Colonials. The loss – on the road in front of a hostile sellout crowd – was GW’s third in four games.
“I’m glad we didn’t fold. It was a great atmosphere and I’m glad we came back and tied it up,” head coach Mike Lonergan said.
But, he added: “We’ve got to get our swagger back.”
The Colonials stormed back from a 14-point deficit to tie the game with a little over nine minutes left in the game. But GW’s shooting then went ice cold. It was a story of the game: close, but not quite enough.
GW played a one-dimensional first half, scoring 16 of their 19 points from field goals inside the paint. Sophomores Kevin Larsen and Joe McDonald carried the Colonials offense, scoring 20 of GW’s 27 first half points, with Larsen leading the team with 12.
The Saint Louis defense, which entered the game as the ninth-best scoring defense in the nation, held GW to 35 percent shooting in the first half. Throughout the half, the Billikens backcourt swarmed GW ball handlers, forcing nine first-half turnovers off five steals, and often times made it difficult for the Colonials to even pass the ball.
“It was just tough to get any wing entries,” McDonald said. “We had to do a lot of high ball screens with me and Kevin because you know, we couldn’t get it in from the wing so we just had to improvise a little bit.”
After a painfully slow first half, the men’s basketball team had a chance to go into the half with momentum and cut a Saint Louis lead, that was as large as 11, down to single digits in the final seconds.
An errant pass by SLU’s Jake Barnett led to a steal at midcourt by sophomore Kevin Larsen. After pushing the ball up the floor, GW found senior Nemanja Mikic in the corner for an uncontested three.
A miss by Mikic and a rebound by junior John Kopriva would lead to a second-chance opportunity for the Colonials as Kopriva looked for Mikic who stood unguarded. But a misdirected pass and turnover by Kopriva would lead to a Billikens dunk on the other end as the clock expired.
The Colonials’ first-half efforts were stunted by foul trouble from two of the team’s season leaders: senior Isaiah Armwood and graduate student Maurice Creek. Armwood would be limited to just 12 first half minutes while Creek would play just 10.
By the end of the half, between Garino, Creek, and Armwood go a combined 1-for-6 from the field.
“Honestly, Patricio and Mo Creek couldn’t even get open,” Lonergan said. “Mo, they played physical with him, and he couldn’t get the ball, he really struggled.”
Creek and Armwood would log heavier minutes in the second half of play, but both would struggle offensively. Armwood would finish with six points on 2-for-7 shooting and 11 rebounds. Creek, who wouldn’t score his first field goal until 13:50 left in the second half, would finish with five points on 2-for-12 shooting. Creek would miss all five of his three-point attempts.
On the offensive end, Saint Louis was able to break GW’s 1-3-1 zone defense with ball movement, converting 16 field goals on 10 first half assists. The Billikens shot 55 percent, led by 10 first-half points from senior Jordair Jett, and would end the half with a 12 point lead.
At the half, Lonergan told his 20-win team to start playing like an NCAA Tournament contender.
“At halftime, I just said we’re not playing with enough energy. I said, ‘Hey you want to come here and compete, we’re on TV, this is a big game for us,’” he said. “I said I just want to play hard, I didn’t think we played real hard.”
GW would respond, coming out aggressive in the second half and slowly chipping away at the SLU lead while tightening up on the defensive end. The offensive charge was led by McDonald and sophomore Patricio Garino.
After being affected by the SLU pressure in the first half, McDonald adjusted and was able to run set plays for the offense while finding his own shot. McDonald would finish with 13 second-half points, six of those points coming from beyond the arc.
After attempting just a single shot in the first half Garino went 3-for-5 in the second and finished with 11 points and six rebounds. Defensively, the Colonials outrebounded the Billikens 26-17 after being outrebounded in the first half by three.
In the span of just under 11 minutes, GW would erase a 14-point Saint Louis lead. But like most of the game, Saint Louis would regain composure, and take an 8-0 run to extend their lead, something that Billikens’ head coach Jim Crews credits to his team’s ability to regain the rebound battle.
But the big GW run would come at a price. Lonergan said that he believed the 11-minute span knocked the energy out of his starting five. He added that without a productive bench, forced him to leave the starters in for extended minutes.
SLU would keep GW in the game due to lackluster free throw shooting, shooting 9-15 from the line. The Colonials would come as close as three points, but multiple missed three-point looks by McDonald and Garino down the stretch would seal the victory for the Billikens.
“I thought maybe we lost our composure, but Patricio came down and just shot like a 30 footer,” Lonergan said.
Lonergan had one timeout remaining in the game but opted not to use it, saying after the game that he tried to have Garino go off a screen but says the sophomore’s inexperience and quick shot may have led to the quick shot.
GW returns to the Smith Center next Sunday where they will host George Mason at 1 p.m.