Ever since his arrival at George Washington five years ago, Ellis McKennie has been seen mainly as an offensive weapon. But, in the waning weeks of his collegiate career, his defense is starting to turn heads. And win games.
In addition to scoring 19 points and grabbing five rebounds, the 6-foot-3 senior guard held Penn State's leading scorer, DeRon Hayes, to 12 points on four-of-14 shooting as the Colonials defeated the Nittany Lions, 83-70, before 3,255 yesterday at Smith Center.
"He always thought for him to be a good ballplayer, he had to score," George Washington Coach Mike Jarvis said. "Ellis McKennie is a great defender. So much of his offense can come from his defense."
George Washington (13-7, 7-5 in the Atlantic 10) parlayed Penn State's woeful first-half shooting into a 12-point halftime lead, and then held off some minor second-half charges for its fourth straight win. Forward Sonni Holland led the Colonials with 21 points and eight rebounds, and guard Dirkk Surles added 12 points off the bench. Forward C.J. Johnson led the Nittany Lions (13-7, 6-5) with 13 points.
Hayes -- who entered averaging 16.2 points and shooting 52 percent -- never became a problem for George Washington, as McKennie draped him wherever he went. McKennie has been "locking people up for the last month," Jarvis said.
Despite never leading by more than 14, the Colonials were in control throughout. They grabbed an early seven-point lead, and after the Nittany Lions got within one, the Colonials used a 13-4 run to take a 26-16 lead on a steal and dunk by Surles with 9:35 left in the half.
Leading 30-25, George Washington ran off nine straight points to take its biggest lead. McKennie's free throw with 3:44 left in the half made the score 39-25.
After Penn State rallied within five early in the second half, McKennie made a jumper and layup and J.J. Hudock added a three-pointer for a 12-point edge. The Colonials maintained a sizable lead until a pair of free throws by James Barnes made the score 71-65 with 1:52 left. But on the ensuing possession, the Colonials worked the shot clock down and Rodney Patterson made a three-pointer with 1:08 left.
"They're a real good team," Penn State Coach Bruce Parkhill said. "They outplayed us, they deserved to win. I think they should finish in the top four in the league."
Under first-year coach Jarvis, the Colonials are seemingly on their way to their first .500 season since 1983-84. "We're playing well," he said. "If I can't sit here with a smile on my face, then there would be something wrong with me. . . . We're getting better each game. We're doing little things better."
Presumably, one of those things is defense. Yesterday, the Nittany Lions had trouble getting open shots, and even when they did, they often missed. For the game, Penn State made just 21 of 61 shots (34 percent).
McKennie began this season in the unfamiliar role of reserve, but moved into the starting lineup just before Christmas. According to Jarvis, it took McKennie some time to adjust, but he has.
"In life, when people learn and adapt to their roles, it makes things so much easier," Jarvis said.