GW has spice, needs seasoning

Monday, January 11, 2010; D05

With 8 minutes 24 seconds left in the game Sunday at Smith Center, George Washington's Hermann Opoku had just made two free throws to give the Colonials a 60-50 lead over Xavier. GW had finished the first half strong to take a 41-30 lead and the margin had stayed between seven and 11 points throughout the second half.

That's not enough, Colonials Coach Karl Hobbs thought as he glanced at the scoreboard.

"I knew at some point in the second half we had to get the lead to 14," he said after the game. "I knew Xavier was too good and too experienced a team for us to keep stopping their offense the whole day. After we got to 60, I kept looking up and we were still on 60. It felt like we were there a long time."

They were there for more than five minutes. By the time Aaron Ware made a free throw with 3:04 left, Xavier had the lead and the Musketeers never looked back, cruising to a 76-69 win. In all, Xavier outscored GW 20-1 over a stretch that last nearly eight minutes.

Game, set, match and -- most important -- road win for Xavier. For the Colonials, an opportunity lost, a chance to prove to the rest of the Atlantic 10 and themselves that, after two seasons of wandering in the college-hoops desert, that they are on the way back. This game was about experience in the crucible. The Musketeers have been through tough, gut-it-out games like this routinely. The Colonials have mostly watched games like this one on TV in the recent past.

"I told our kids at the under-four minute timeout, 'Look, we've been here before, we know what needs to be done,' " Xavier Coach Chris Mack said. "There's no doubt the battles we've been in made a big difference for us today."

They made a big difference for the Colonials, too. Hobbs's team hasn't been in many games played at this level since it reached the NCAA tournament in 2007. Xavier is a team that has been to the Elite Eight and the Sweet 16 the past two seasons. GW hasn't been in the Atlantic 10 Conference tournament during that time.

Already this season Xavier has played Marquette, Baylor, Kansas State, Cincinnati, Butler, LSU and Wake Forest. That's the kind of schedule you can afford when you are a team that is frequently ranked and almost always in the NCAA tournament. Xavier won 30 games two seasons ago and 27 last season. GW won 19 total during those two seasons. That's why Hobbs, knowing he was going to be playing a lot of freshmen, scheduled no one that would be close to the top 25 in nonconference play. The Colonials' most impressive win to date was either at UNC Wilmington or at home against George Mason, which played without two key players that night.

That doesn't mean there aren't serious signs of a reawakening in Foggy Bottom. This team can play the way Hobbs likes to play. It is deep: Eight players played double-digit minutes Sunday and four others saw the court. It can attack defensively. For most of the first 32 minutes, the Colonials made life difficult for Xavier's guards, playing 94 feet of defense, contesting passing lanes and getting easy baskets off of steals and blocked shots that led to fast breaks.

"They were really hard to deal with the first half," said Mack, who stepped into big shoes when he took over the program after Sean Miller left for Arizona last spring. "They made our offense uncomfortable and didn't really give us a chance to get on the offensive boards because we were setting up so far from the basket."

That's vintage Hobbs basketball: Get points from your defense, make the opponent work every possession and keep the tempo as fast as possible. But in order to play that kind of defense, a team needs to score so it can set up its pressure. When it mattered most, the Colonials couldn't score.

"Give credit to Xavier," Hobbs said. "They really hurt us on the offensive boards those last few minutes. We guarded well, we just couldn't get the rebounds we had to get. Their experience was, without question, a big factor. You could see it in their decision-making. There was never a moment when they looked out of the game."

Mack went to a lot of zone defense in the second half in large part because no one on his team could control Damian Hollis. The only senior who plays for GW, Hollis has become a scoring threat facing the basket this season and he had 17 points by halftime. But the zone and fatigue combined to force him into some poor shots and he made only 2 of 12 shots in the final 20 minutes.

"The zone slowed our offense down," Hollis said. "We like to play fast and we weren't able to do that against the zone. It made a difference."

With Xavier's Jason Love getting help whenever Hollis got the ball, there was little chance for him to put the ball on the floor. And his jump shots began to miss -- some of them badly.

"I thought some of those misses were because of fatigue," Hobbs said. "We just couldn't take him out. We had to have him in there. I think I got him out once for a minute the second half. When he isn't scoring we aren't the same team on offense."

Because Hobbs likes to play so many players, Hollis had averaged just less than 25 minutes per game before Sunday -- still the most on the team. Against Xavier he played 35 minutes and found himself facing some much bigger players, who pushed and banged at him every chance they got.

"I don't know if I have ever been around a game where the momentum swung in the last seven minutes like it did today," Mack said.

That's what can happen to a young team playing its first true quality opponent of the season. Hobbs knows that. He knows that he's in a league in which there will be few nights off this season. If you include GW, the Atlantic 10 has seven teams that have legitimate NCAA tournament hopes right now: Xavier, Dayton, Temple, Rhode Island, Charlotte and Richmond are the other six.

Of course, some of those teams will fall by the wayside the next few weeks. The Colonials already have a win on the road against bottom-feeder St. Bonaventure and they need another one Wednesday against La Salle. The next five games after that are at Dayton, home against Richmond and St. Louis and then at Rhode Island and Charlotte. There's not a lock win in that bunch.

Even so, those games, unlike those over the past two years, are winnable. Sunday's game was eminently winnable before the bright lights of a genuine upset began shining in the eyes of the Colonials (11-4) while the battle-tested Musketeers (10-5) never blinked -- even down 10 points with less than eight minutes remaining.

The good news is there will be plenty of games like this one for GW this season. Hobbs and his players can only hope that going through days like Sunday will help them bring about a different outcome the next time they find themselves up 10 on a quality team in the second half.

Maybe next time the lead will get to 14. And Hobbs won't find himself staring at a scoreboard stuck on 60.

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