- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 16, 2006

Mike Hall struggled up the Smith Center steps late last night, battling sore knees to make it to the door. The usually jovial senior provided the picture of a wounded team that had barely escaped an unsightly upset.

“I have played through this before, but they never felt anything like this,” the George Washington forward said. “I couldn’t jump.”

The seventh-ranked Colonials looked hobbled most of the night, holding on for a 69-66 win over Massachusetts before a nervous sold-out crowd of 5,000.

GW let its five-point lead shrink to one in the final seconds and only survived after GW’s Maureece Rice missed two free throws with the Colonials clinging to a 67-66 lead with two seconds left. Rice managed to knock the rebound off a UMass player, and the Minutemen did not get a final chance to pull the upset.

“We just can’t keep putting ourselves in this position,” said Colonials center Pops Mensah-Bonsu, whose team also needed last-minute heroics in its previous win at St. Joseph’s. “Not taking anything away from UMass; they played a great game. But sometimes in a tournament atmosphere like that the ball bounces the wrong way, they get the ball and make a lucky shot at the end of the game.”

GW sputtered on offense, played surprisingly porous defense and lacked a killer instinct while winning its 13th straight — the nation’s longest active winning streak and one away from matching a program record. The Colonials prolonged the best start in program history as GW improved to 21-1 overall, 11-0 in the Atlantic 10. With a win at Richmond on Saturday, GW would match the school’s longest winning streak, set in 1935-36.

But last night, the Colonials hardly looked like a member of college basketball’s elite — with the exception of a few spectacular moments. GW flirted with the Minutemen (10-12, 5-6), who lost a third straight contest and its sixth in seven games.

Hall, who will have his knees examined today, had a third consecutive poor offensive game as he shot 1-for-10 from the field. His teammates did not fare much better as they missed a number of dunks, layups and other close-range shots. The Colonials shot 35.3 percent from the field, made 16.7 percent (3-for-18) of their 3-pointers and shot just 54.5 percent (18-for-33) from the foul line.

Danilo Pinnock scored a team-high 14 points but also missed a dunk. Mensah-Bonsu had 12 points and eight rebounds but made only eight of 15 foul shots. The Colonials struggled inside with UMass center Stephane Lasme, the nation’s third-leading shot blocker who had four rejections and 11 points.

The close game was particularly baffling because the Colonials’ smothering fullcourt defense forced a season-high 29 turnovers but blew countless fastbreak opportunities.

“I have some concerns, but that is about finishing plays,” GW coach Karl Hobbs said. “We had opportunities to finish plays. We just didn’t — for whatever reason.”

The Colonials built an 11-point first-half lead off the flurry of turnovers but couldn’t shake the Minutemen. James Life scored a game-high 25 points and continually hit big shots to close the gap. UMass scored the first six points after halftime to get back into the game.

Life’s 3-pointer from the right wing cut GW’s lead to 61-60 with 3:48 left. It appeared the Colonials would finally put the game away after Mensah-Bonsu’s dunk widened the lead to three. GW forced a five-second violation, and a fastbreak dunk by Carl Elliott made it 65-60 with 2:10 left.

However, after a Pinnock steal, the Colonials missed three shots. Jeff Viggiano hit a 3-pointer to cut GW’s lead to two with 43 seconds left. GW answered as Maureece Rice used his build to create space and hit a 10-footer off the glass with eight seconds remaining to make it 67-63. Life responded with a 3-pointer from the left wing to cut GW’s lead to one with 3.9 seconds left.

After Rice missed the two free throws, a technical foul was called on UMass’ Chris Lowe, and Hall made both free throws to provide the final margin. Hall received the inbounds pass and crouched over it with both hands to secure the win.

“We’re definitely fortunate to win this game,” Mensah-Bonsu said.

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