George Washington, as it so often does, hoped to generate transition and avoid a plodding pace in its Atlantic 10 tournament first round game.
Saint Joseph’s, with its inexperienced roster and wily coach, would have happily played at a possession-per-minute pace.
The Hawks didn’t entirely get their wish. They did manage to secure what they really wanted, a 71-59 overtime victory Tuesday at the Smith Center to perhaps concluded the Colonials’ season in the process.
GW, the tournament’s fifth seed, finished the regular season 17-14 and found the end to be a particularly drawn-out death.
The 12th-seeded Hawks (10-21) made no secret of their deliberate intent. They burned time early on and in the end game, building a 14-point lead in the middle of the second half before falling into a wicked slump in the final 11 minutes.
Even still, Saint Joseph’s did one thing is craved even in its worst moments. In its final 12 possessions of regulation, it churned 30 seconds off the shot clock eight times. In the first 40 minutes, the Hawks had only 47 possessions.
“That’s been our plan for about 10 games,” Saint Joseph’s coach Phil Martelli said. “Here’s what happened, to be honest with you. We’re last in the league in scoring, we’re one of the lowest shooting percentage teams, we’re not really stopping anybody at the other end. So what do you do? Do you just keep playing like this and hope that lightning strikes? What we’ve tried to do is play defense on offense.”
Added GW coach Karl Hobbs: “We wanted to not face their halfcourt offense. It was basically spreading us out and running the shot clock down. They do a very good job attacking the basket and we wanted to take that away from them by going to our zone traps, which got us back into the game.”
It was the smart play for both men. Martelli’s Hawks, in the throes of a second straight 20-loss season, won their third in four games for the first time since November with such thinking. Hobbs’ Colonials, winless in the conference tournament four years running, couldn’t keep alive a surprisingly good season considering the absence of Lasan Kromah.
Still, they were game enough to make things interesting. Down 43-29, GW finally tied it at 49 on Tony Taylor‘s free throws with 59.9 seconds left. It even missed two shots —- one from Taylor, another Jabari Edwards’ putback attempt —- in the final seconds that would have won it.
Instead, the Hawks snagged the opening tip of overtime, then quickly recaptured the lead and eventually secured the game with 18 free throws in the extra session.
“My target in this game was to get to 63 before they got to 63, and I thought we could win it that way,” Martelli said. “We’re not going to win it digging in and belly up and everybody give us the old college try. That isn’t going to work for us. It has to be where we control possessions.”
In doing so, the Hawks controlled a team accustomed to exploiting its chances against conference opponents. At least until the postseason rolled around, anyway.
The Colonials improved by four games in the conference standings, winning five of their last six. Their final destination, though, was 190 miles shy of where they hoped to spend the weekend.
“We’ll remember this and we’ll work hard this offseason,” junior Aaron Ware said. “We won’t be in this spot. We’ll be in Atlantic City next year.”
There’s good reason to believe it. Edwards and Joseph Katuka are the Colonials’ only seniors, and Kromah should be back from a foot injury. If this is it for GW —- and an NIT berth seems unlikely —- the Colonials could return as much as 85.6 percent of their scoring, 81.1 percent of their rebounding and 85.4 percent of their minutes.
For those who are back, they’ll also deal with the memory of a brutal loss at the most untimely of junctures.
“Just the emotion of the game itself,” Hobbs said. “We know what it feels like to lose this kind of ballgame.”
Particularly in the slow, agonizing manner Saint Joseph’s meted out defeat on Tuesday.
—- Patrick Stevens