George Washington men’s basketball Coach Mike Lonergan told his players this week that they needed to stop wondering about their NCAA tournament chances and focus on cleaning up deficiencies heading into Saturday’s game against 20th-ranked Virginia Commonwealth.
The Colonials instead permitted unobstructed looks from three-point range and were careless protecting the basketball in a 79-66 loss at Smith Center. Their fourth defeat in five games further diminished NCAA aspirations that already were in dire straits.
A second loss in 18 days to VCU dropped the Colonials (17-8, 7-5 Atlantic 10) two games behind the Atlantic 10 leaders with six games remaining in the regular season. It also ended a 12-game home winning streak and left Lonergan speaking of lineup changes, not necessarily as admonishment directed at a particular starter but rather to fortify reinforcements off the bench.
“It’s a lack of energy,” Lonergan said. “We struggled to get five guys committed defensively as a team. Our 1-3-1 [zone] used to be a huge strength of ours, but you can’t play it when only three guys are playing really hard.”
Junior Patricio Garino led the Colonials with 22 points on 8-for-13 shooting with four rebounds, three assists and two steals. The forward made 3 of 4 three-pointers; the rest of the team went 4 for 16.
Junior point guard Joe McDonald added 12 points and eight rebounds, but GW missed 10 of 30 shots in the second half and was at a 21-10 deficit overall in points off turnovers. The Rams (19-6, 9-3), meanwhile, got 17 points from Melvin Johnson and shot 46 percent from the field. VCU made 12 of 30 three-pointers (40 percent) one game after Duquesne made 10 of 21 against GW in a 78-62 upset Wednesday.
“Maybe it’s psychological, that we’re thinking too much about offense or missing shots or mental breakdowns that we have,” Garino said. “We need to get back to basics and recognize that defense is the key.”
The game began slipping away early in the second half, first when Jonathan Williams made a driving layup for a 44-43 lead with 16 minutes 7 seconds left. The Rams did not trail again, and moments later Colonials starting center Kevin Larsen collided with VCU guard Doug Brooks and remained down on the court.
Larsen went to the locker room with 15:49 to play for further examination and re-entered to thunderous applause three minutes later. He promptly forced forward Mo Alie-Cox into a turnover, but momentum from Larsen’s return didn’t last. VCU instead scored seven in a row capped by Treveon Graham’s putback for a 58-48 lead with 8:09 to play.
The status of Graham, the Rams’ leading scorer, was a game-time decision after he missed the last two contests with an ankle injury suffered Jan. 13. Graham finished with 10 points and four rebounds.
Meanwhile, GW finished with 16 turnovers for a second time in a row facing the Rams.
“Today I thought our turnovers were guys trying to do too much, driving one-on-one, which we’re not good at,” Lonergan said. VCU “was digging in and stripping guys. That continued the whole game. Not pointing fingers, but you’ve got to adjust.”
The energy at Smith Center was electric from the start, but unforced errors combined with VCU’s three-point shooting conspired to send the Colonials to a 22-13 deficit with 13:05 to go in the first half. GW regrouped to take a 36-34 lead following a 7-0 run.
The Colonials got a lift going into the locker room thanks to another buzzer-beating shot by McDonald, who collected a pass from Yuta Watanabe and sank a jumper from the right side to tie it at 38 with two-tenths of a second to go.
McDonald also scored as the overtime buzzer sounded for the decisive points in a 66-65 victory over Dayton on Feb. 6 at Smith Center.
“I think GW has got a really good team,” VCU Coach Shaka Smart said. “Today in no way takes away from that. The reality of the Atlantic 10 right now, we’ve got a bunch of people that are about the same. GW is one of them, and we’re one of them. There’s not a whole lot of separation.”