Saturday night, the Doc and I had some seasonal social events to attend, so I watched the first half of GW-USC before we had to leave, but my older son said he would tape the rest of the game for me.
As I predicted, Southern Cal started slowly, but GW didn't light it up either. The Trojans struggled mightily in the first half, suffering a 10-minute scoring drought, turning the ball over 11 times, and managing only 18 field goal attempts. At the break GW led, 29-16, mainly as a result of eight offensive rebounds. Carl Elliott had outscored his Trojan counterpart Lodrick Stewart 9-2, and USC point guard Daniel Hackett had three personal fouls and Stewart and Dwight Lewis had two each.
By the time we reached our first stop of the night, GW had opened up a 20-point lead with under 18 minutes to play. "Not bad," I thought. This would be a great road win for a team that is very much a work in progress.
After exchanging holiday greetings with some neighbors and new acquaintances, we bid our hosts farewell and climbed into the car to move on to the next soiree. I turned on the radio and heard the announcer say, "The Trojans are really feeling it now! They lead 56-52 and GW calls timeout."
What? How does that happen? But of course it happens all the time. GW was down 18 to UNC Wilmington and 17 to Xavier last season and won both games. And some GW fans still can't talk about the Colonials blowing an 18-point lead against Iowa in the 1996 NCAA Tournament. But, coming in early December instead of early March, this one shouldn't hurt as much.
First, you have to give credit to USC and their coach, Tim Floyd. The Trojans didn't take the lead with a six or eight minute burst, they ground away like a PGA Tour veteran trying to make the cut. For nearly 14 minutes they chipped at the lead and crashed the boards until they went ahead 53-52 on two Taj Gibson free throws. Stewart made up for his lousy first half with 19 points in the second, including three treys. Gibson set up camp in the lane and collected 12 rebounds. And over the last 1:30, USC made 18 of 20 free throws to protect and extend the lead.
Also, the Trojans did a great job short circuiting GW's halfcourt offense by denying the first pass to the wing, a tactic Duke used to great effect in the NCAA Tournament last year and something GW should expect to see a lot more often. The Colonials are going to have to work on their back screens and back door cuts to exploit the defensive overplay.
Not that GW escapes without some blame for this one. It's easy to focus on Elliott, who was 1-8 in the second half and finished with eight turnovers. A 90% free throw shooter this season, he missed the front end of a one-and-one just before USC took the lead for good. But the whole team suffered from miscues throughout the second half. Rob Diggs interefered with a Traivs King layin that was about to fall through the hoop, Regis Koundjia mistimed a fastbreak layup, Maureece Rice missed three free throws (including another one-and-one front end), and Elliott, Rice and King all missed open shots under the four-minute mark.
Surprisingly, Cheyenne Moore appeared only in the last minute when GW had to foul. Noel Wilmore did not play at all and Damien Hollis was only on the court for a minute or two. After such a great first half defensive effort, I think it's fair to say that GW ran out of gas against a deeper and very athletic USC team. Karl Hobbs may not want the aggravation that comes with giving lesser players more minutes, but he might need a few minutes from those guys just to keep Elliott and Rice fresh.
Before the season, I figured this would be a tough game, but it's hard to stomach when you have such a great opportunity. The Colonials face UMBC tonight, and I'll be impressed if they come out stong and focused. If not, they could find themselves in a real struggle.