Terry Holland made his return to coaching a successful one tonight with three words of wisdom: "Mel, get him."
Mel, as in Virginia freshman Mel Kennedy, proceeded to get him, as in George Washington's Joe Wassel. The result, to oversimplify just a little, was the complete shutdown of GW's offense and a 51-42 Virginia victory before 8,492 in University Hall.
Until Holland, back for the first time since he was struck with a severe intestinal upset 16 days ago in Atlanta, switched his team into first a man-to-man defense and then a box-and-one, it appeared that the Colonials (11-8) were more than capable of beating the Cavaliers (11-10).
Even with Holland on the bench, the home crowd had been docile most of the night. The Cavaliers were denying GW center Mike Brown the ball, but the Colonials were hitting the open shots available from outside.
Most of those shots came from Wassel. With a tight zone all over Brown (nine points on four-of-12 shooting), Wassel had provided most of the offense, scoring 14 points from the outside during the first 25 minutes.
While Brown was struggling, still hampered apparently by his bruised toe, his Virginia counterpart Olden Polynice was having a 15-point, seven-rebound night and was getting help from Tom Sheehey (13 points) and Kennedy (10). But for much of the game, it looked as if GW's perimeter shooting, especially Wassel's next-county jumpers honed under the Atlantic 10's three-point rule, might be enough.
Wassel's last basket, a 20-footer, had pulled the Colonials within 35-34 with 14:47 to play. With 11:45 left, a jumper by Troy Webster put GW in front, 38-37, and Coach Gerry Gimelstob had to be thinking this could be one of the bigger nights of his four years in charge.
"It's very frustrating," he said when it was over. "The shots were there, the game was there. We just didn't make the shots."
During that last 11:45, the Colonials literally made almost nothing, scoring two points until the final six seconds of the game. Most of that came after Virginia switched from zone to man-to-man with GW still up one and 9:21 left.
"When they said man-to-man in the huddle, I kind of said, 'What?' " Cavalier guard Tim Mullen related. "I mean, I can't remember the last time we played man. I think it was in December. But they thought we were flat and this would pick us up."
Specifically, Virginia's coaches ordered the 6-foot-5 Kennedy to pick up Wassel -- everywhere.
"Coach Holland just said, 'Mel, get him,' " Kennedy recalled. "I just tried to play up against him, not give him any room and make him move when he was shooting. He had been running around like crazy, coming around picks and hitting. I wanted my arms in his face every time he tried to shoot." During the last 9:21, Wassel almost never saw the ball and got off one shot, a short jumper in the lane that he missed. Until then he had hit seven of nine.
"When a team goes to a box-and-one on you, that guy isn't going to score, it's as simple as that," Gimelstob said. "We had the shots during that stretch when we didn't score; they just didn't go down. If Wassel can't get the ball, the other guys have to score, period."
Brown might have been the other guy, but Polynice kept him away from the ball, even late in the game.
"I thought when we stopped playing zone they would go to him more," Polynice said. "But they kept looking for the perimeter shot. I was surprised. But I'm not complaining. I'd rather give them those shots than a Brown dunk."
The shot that most bothered Gimelstob was a missed jumper by Mike O'Reilly. Gimelstob had called time with 9:21 left and the 38-37 lead holding. That was when Holland put Kennedy on Wassel. Patiently, the Colonials ran 1:25 off the clock, running their motion offense, looking for a good shot.
Finally, O'Reilly, thinking he was open, went up for an 18-footer. Mullen came out and put a hand in his face and the ball clanged off the rim. Twenty seconds later, Kennedy tossed Polynice an alley-oop pass for a three-point play and Virginia led -- for good as it turned out -- 40-38, with 7:38 left.
GW went inside on its next possession and Brown badly missed a short base line jumper. Forty seconds later, Wassel missed his last shot of the game and Polynice dunked at the other end: 42-38.
Gimelstob tried another timeout and Virginia responded with the box-and-one. Steve Frick got open for a 12-footer in the lane that missed and Darrick Simms made two free throws for Virginia with 3:39 to go. O'Reilly finally ended GW's drought of 9:57 with a jumper that made it 44-40, but the Cavaliers made their free throws down the stretch as the Colonials continued to miss and miss and miss.
GW finished the second half eight for 25 from the field.
"I guess you could call it an ugly victory but any win seems beautiful to me," said Holland, who missed four games while spending most of 10 days in the hospital. "Being back felt good at the end but for a while there I thought if we kept turning the ball over I might end up back in the hospital."
But, with Wassel unable to get the ball and Brown having a tough night, GW had no one to turn to. Frick was zero for four, Chester Wood two for seven and Troy Webster two for five. Only O'Reilly, four for eight, provided much offensive help.
"We knew going in we had to get some perimeter shooting and for the first 25 minutes we did," Gimelstob said. "I didn't think their defense did us in. Our not making those shots, starting with O'Reilly's miss when we were up one, did us in."