In the days before last night's game against intracity rival American University, Coach Gerry Gimelstob wouldn't let his George Washington basketball team forget its upset loss to the Eagles last season. On each player's locker, the score was posted in six-inch block letters: 71-63.
"Coach really got us pumped up about this game," forward Darryl Webster said after last night's 83-59 GW victory at the Smith Center. "That's why we played so hard in this game. It motivated us to do well."
In the first half, the Colonials' impatient offense helped tease a crowd of 3,033 with the possibility of another upset. But in the second half, the Colonials played so hard and accomplished so much defensively that AU's offense unraveled.
From a 34-31 halftime lead, GW took control swiftly. By the end of a 22-5 run, it was 70-45 with 6 1/2 minutes to play.
"They just took us out of our offense," said AU Coach Ed Tapscott. "We were reduced to making individual efforts to score, and we aren't good at that yet."
The Eagles made 11 of 36 shots in the second half and finished the game with 36.7 percent accuracy. GW, after making only one-third of its first-half shots, shot 58.8 percent in the second half. The difference was Mike Brown, GW's 6-foot-10, 260-pound senior center who had 21 points and 10 rebounds.
But Brown's scoring was not the key to the offense, nor was backup center Craig Helms' 10 points and career-high 10 rebounds. The key was Brown's mere presence, and AU having to sag its zone around him. When AU rallied in the first half, Brown was out of the game with three fouls.
Tapscott said, "He's unselfish. He doesn't shoot every time. He passes back out. Now the GW player who's the recipient of Mike's pass back out is stepping in and shooting an open 16-footer. They get open 16-, 17-foot shots, and we get 20-foot shots with a hand in our face. That characterized what they did against us."
Gimelstob was especially pleased by the defense and downplayed his motivational device. "That had nothing to do with the game," he said. "They've got to do that all the time."
The key to GW's defense was its ability to stop AU's guards from passing the ball back and forth across the court. In the second half, the vital players in this effort were Brian Butler, Joe Dooley and Mike O'Reilly. They overplayed and prevented the guard-to-guard pass. To counter such defense, the guard must throw a cross-court pass to a forward.
"We threw it once," Tapscott said afterward, "and our guy didn't catch it." The Eagles threw it a few other times, too, but GW either intercepted the pass or knocked the ball out of bounds.
Frank Ross, AU's star guard who scored 19 points but was shut down early in the second half, said, "If only we had thrown more skip passes. It's experience. A lot of people don't want to take that chance."
GW also defended successfully in this manner early in the game, forcing AU (1-1) into turnovers on 11 of its first 17 possessions. But the Colonials (2-0) lacked continuity on offense, took shots too quickly after opening an 11-point lead and let American get back in the game by running.
Gimelstob started the game with a big lineup, thus benching senior guard/forward Joe Wassel, the team's best outside shooter. But, with AU sagging on Brown and offering open outside shots, Wassel started the second half in place of Troy Webster.
Combined with better patience in its attack, GW benefited immediately when Wassel took its first shot of the half and made it. Then O'Reilly (10 points, six assists) hit two straight jumpers. That made it 38-31, and the rout was on. In GW's 22-5 run, AU made two baskets in slightly over eight minutes, and it was 70-45.
When AU made a good play defensively, it frequently failed to score off of it. "We're a young team struggling a little bit," Tapscott said. "Good teams -- experienced teams -- don't have long droughts like we did."
He credited it to GW's defense, and so did Gimelstob. "It's a great defensive effort when you can hold a team that likes to run and push the ball up court to under 60 points. It tells how we played defense."