- The Washington Times - Friday, November 11, 2011

Uncertainty filled George Washington’s basketball arena in the minutes leading up to Friday night’s season opener. With a new coach, a new system and a new season at their fingertips, the throngs of gold-and-blue-clad fans in Foggy Bottom could only cross their fingers and hope their team could replicate its 92-65 blowout against Bowie State in last week’s preseason scrimmage.

Despite a slow start, all fears were squashed after a strong second half pushed the Colonials to a 64-48 win against Maryland-Eastern Shore. The Mike Lonergan era is off and running at George Washington, although not without some question marks that reared up throughout the contest.

“We’ve got to play a lot better this Sunday [against No. 24 California] if we want it to be a competitive game,” coach Lonergan said after his first regular-season game at the helm.

The Colonials struggled mightily in the game’s opening stages, shooting just 1-for-7 from the field en route to an 8-3 deficit after the first five minutes of play. The sloppy first half ended with GWU ahead 30-22 despite 33 percent shooting from the field. That kind of offensive production is never encouraging, particularly when it comes against a team coming off a 9-22 season and a 12th-place preseason coaches’ poll projection in the 13-team MEAC. Rebounding also proved problematic for the undersized Colonials, who finished the night with a 45-42 deficit on the boards.

The first half was particularly tough for highly-touted junior guard Lasan Kromah, who sat out last season with a foot injury after putting up 11.8 points per game his freshman year. Kromah ended the half with no points and just one rebound in 15 minutes of play; he finished with seven points on 3-of-12 shooting.

In line with his defense-first mentality, Lonergan was more discouraged by Kromah’s lack of intensity on the defensive end than his shooting futility on the offensive end.

“When he’s scoring, he becomes one of our best defenders,” Lonergan said. “Defensively, Lasan’s got to bring it. He can help us in so many ways, and you just see it when he’s not scoring. He doesn’t get back on defense, and it really affects his overall game. … You’re not always going to have 23 points, but you can really do other things as a choice. And he’s got to choose to be a good defender for us to have a good season.”

One bright spot was John Kopriva, the 6-foot-8 freshman forward who decommitted from Vermont earlier this year to follow Lonergan to GW. Kopriva’s 21 minutes of action didn’t flood the scoring column (three points), but he showed fluidity in running Lonergan’s multi-varied half-court sets and provided an imposing presence on the defensive end, something his six boards and two blocks helped demonstrate.

“The [Bowie State] exhibition was great to get some of the first-game jitters out of the way,” Kopriva, GW’s lone freshman starter, said. “I felt a lot more comfortable coming into the game today. But I’m definitely excited to get back on the court against Cal. I’m going to keep getting better each game.”

Though their victory against a relatively weak opponent was hardly convincing, GW players left the floor content with the way the season has begun under their new coach. A win certainly helps promote comfort in a new system, but players also found themselves getting used to the personality of their coach, whose calm demeanor some might label a far cry from the high-energy, frenetic style of their previous coach, Karl Hobbs.

“During the game, coach Lonergan isn’t really a screamer,” said senior guard Tony Taylor, who finished with a game-high 20 points. “If you come out, he’s going to tell you what you did wrong and put you right back in. I don’t think he was too angry, but he made sure we knew we’ve got to play a lot better against Cal on Sunday.”

In light of his days coaching nearby Catholic University – where he spent 12 years on the sideline before a six-year stint at Vermont – Lonergan was eager to make his first regular-season game back in the District a night to remember. The boisterous 3,369 fans packing the Charles E. Smith Center’s tight confines left he and his team with a good feeling to carry into Sunday’s game against a tougher opponent.

“I was really excited. My family was here, all my sisters and in-laws. It was pretty neat,” Lonergan said. “All the people around here are great. I was really thankful we had a pretty good crowd, especially looking up over the bench and seeing all the students because that’s what we really need. We’ve got to get energy off their enthusiasm. So I couldn’t be happier.”

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