By Steven Goff
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, February 16, 2006
With their national ranking in single numbers and their winning streak in double digits, the George Washington Colonials are acutely aware that the rest of the nation is watching their every move. Their big road victories during these six weeks of unbeaten basketball have certainly been noticed, but so too have the last-minute scares.
Last night the No. 7 Colonials barely survived their second disjointed effort in five days and edged another mediocre Atlantic 10 opponent, Massachusetts, 69-66, at sold-out Smith Center.
The victory stretched GW's unbeaten streak to 13, the longest streak in the country and one short of the 70-year-old program record.
The Colonials (21-1, 11-0 Atlantic 10) also remain one of only two once-beaten teams in Division I, joining Duke, but they were fortunate to keep those feats intact after nearly relinquishing an 11-point halftime lead to the road-weary Minutemen (10-12, 5-6).
"These two games are how NCAA games are going to be," said Coach Karl Hobbs, remembering Saturday's two-point victory at Saint Joseph's. "I'm hoping that we can correct these things. I've said all along, we're still not playing our best basketball. We're still not playing the way I think we're capable of just yet."
Danilo Pinnock had 14 points, 5 rebounds and 6 steals for the Colonials, who shot 35 percent from the field, 55 percent from the free throw line, and made just 3 of 18 three-pointers.
They maintained the lead for the last 32 minutes of the sloppy game, but the Minutemen (1-10 on the road) made it difficult down to the final second. Reserve James Life's three-pointer -- the second of three he made in the last seven minutes -- trimmed GW's lead to 61-60 with 3 minutes 44 seconds remaining.
The Colonials pushed the advantage back to five on dunks by Pops Mensah-Bonsu and Carl Elliott, but Jeff Viggiano responded with a three-pointer with 40 seconds to go. After Maureece Rice banked in a short shot with 8.2 remaining, Life (25 points) made another three-pointer. Rice, GW's best free throw shooter, missed two attempts at the 2.1 mark, but scrambled to knock the ball off a U-Mass. player and out of bounds with six-tenths of a second remaining.
The Minutemen were hit with a technical foul while pleading their case to take possession. Two free throws and a simple inbounds pass later, the Colonials were finally able to exhale.
"A year ago or two years ago, games like this we had no chance of winning," Pinnock said. "Us growing together and going through games where we lost like that, knowing how it feels to come up short, has really helped us close out some of these games now."
Following the Saint Joseph's game, Hobbs had said he was troubled by his team's mental preparation. He was hoping an intense week of practice would improve the focus, but instead he got another uneven performance.
GW's first half was a combination of breathtaking athletic ability and long lulls. Its swarming defense was overwhelming at times, flawed at others. Its half-court offense stumbled more than usual, resulting in a missed dunk (Pinnock), two air balls, a missed layup and six blocked shots (four by the Minutemen's Stephane Lasme).
Nonetheless, the Colonials took a 39-28 lead into intermission after scoring the final seven points of the half.
GW's momentum, however, was stunted as the Minutemen started the second half with a 9-1 run, keyed by Viggiano's two jumpers, including a three-pointer. Fast-break layups by Elliott and Pinnock off turnovers pushed the lead back to seven, but it was becoming clear the Minutemen weren't going to go away.
"When you're going against one of the best teams in the country and you're at their place, you've got to play almost perfect and we didn't play perfect," said first-year U-Mass. coach Travis Ford, whose team shot 62 percent in the second half but committed 29 turnovers (12 by Chris Lowe).
Said Hobbs: "I never felt we were in control, only because we weren't finishing plays. . . . We were missing, I don't want to say easy plays, but plays that we normally make and we weren't shooting it particularly well from the perimeter."