I have never been so confident in a team that was losing by ten points at halftime as I was in the GW Colonials last night . "Get it to 10," I said, even as they trailed by 17 with five minutes to play in the first half. "Just keep it to 10 by halftime." Xavier was on fire from the field, feeding off the energy of the frenzied home crowd. They didn't care that it was ESPN2, the poor cousin of the original four-letter sports network. Dickie V was in the Cintas Center, and their Musketeers were whipping up on the #10 Colonials just as they had in nine of the last ten meetings.
The Muskies scored first after five field goal attempts on their first possession; they batted the ball off the backboard until Josh Duncan scooped up the ball and slammed it home. Despite two GW timeouts in the first five minutes, the X-Men overwhelmed the Colonials at both ends of the floor. Led by Justin Doellman and Stanley Burrell, who made his first four shots after coming off the bench, Xavier kept the lead in double digits for most of the first half.
On offense, GW was struggling to find a rhythm against the XU zone. The Musketeers came into the game ranked 10th in the nation in field goal percentage defense, and they appeared well-prepared for the Colonials. Pops Mensah-Bonsu forced up several shots against double and triple-teams. Mike Hall made one three but hesitated when he had another open look, trying to find a better way to break down the defense. Omar Williams found himself open at the top of the key and missed a three. These were the shots Xavier wanted GW to take. Make them play halfcourt, stop them from scoring in transition, limit their opportunities to set up their pressure defense.
As their lead grew, Xavier made the mistake of thinking they could keep playing at this level the whole game. Maybe if they had shown more patience on offense, they would have had enough energy to stave off the inevitable GW runs. When the first half lead was 12, GW cut it back to five within two minutes. Xavier built it back to 17, but GW kept coming back. So when Danilo Pinnock banked in a prayer of a three at the first half buzzer, I felt no reason to be upset.
I might have been worried if the halftime score was 33-23, but X had put up 53 points, a pace that favors GW. Ten points is nothing for the Colonials, and less than three minutes into the second half, the lead was down to two. That sequence bears closer examination.
On Xavier's first possession after the intermission, Regis Koundjia jumped out on a screen, causing Burrell to reconsider a three-point attempt, and Maureece Rice took his second steal of the night all the way for a layup. Next X possession, Pops and Hall doubled Brian Thornton in the post, Pops got the block and then made both free throws when he was fouled on a followup attempt. Pops then took a charge while helping out on Justin Cage but badly forced a shot at the other end; however, Carl Ellliot forced Dedrick Finn to travel at midcourt as X tried to get out on the break. Hall made a three and Xavier now led 53-50. The Musketeers finally scored on two Cage free throws, but Hall quickly buried another three and Xavier called timeout leading by two points.
Maybe that was when it dawned on the Musketeers that they had played right into GW's hands. Instead of keeping the game under control, they had tried to run away with it and found their advantage slipping away. Two starters, Cage and Doellman, had three fouls, and the easy shots of the first half had vanished. Burrell's hot start had dissipated into four straight misses and three turnovers. All things considered, Xavier still had a lead, but that looked like the only factor in their favor.
GW's run was keyed by the defense, and the Colonials took their first lead of the second half on a Montrell McDonald dunk in transition after a Xavier miss. GW's starting lineup is as fast a five as you will find in the country, but when Rice, Koundjia and McDonald check in, the team gets even faster. Teams hoping for a break when the starters go to the bench will be sorely disappointed. Xavier shot 8-25 in the second half with very few uncontested looks at the basket. GW, on the other hand, scored on fast breaks and found soft spots in the Xavier zone that were unavailable in the first half.
Two plays epitimozed the way that GW beats its opponents. Four minutes into the second half, the Musketeers came down on a break with a good opportunity to extend their 58-53 lead. Thornton took a pass from Finn, spun into a double team in the lane and fed Doellman filling the opposite lane. It was a nifty play by the two big men, but as Doellman went to lay the ball in, he found himself face-to-armpit with Danilo Pinnock. Danilo rejected the shot with such force that Doellman fell to the floor, and McDonald converted a reverse layup at the other end to cut the margin to three. The second play was Thornton's calf cramp with about a minute left. He had been powerfully effective in the lane all night, scoring 21 points on dunks, layins and free throws, but in the end, GW literally ran him into the ground.
The purest karmic moment of the night came when Burrell's final three-point attempt rimmed out. It was a heart-in-the-throat moment for all GW fans, who remembered Burrell's shot from just about the same spot that won the game at Smith Center last season. The slow motion replay showed the ball spinning in and down into the cylinder, then reversing its course and rotating back up and out to preserve GW's victory.