By Dan Gardella
Brooklyn – It’s no secret that when your shots are falling, everything else just seems to fall into place. But then they aren’t, that’s when good teams find a way to win.
George Washington showed that sort of grit, battling back from a double digit first half deficit to knock off Massachusetts 68-64 in overtime Wednesday afternoon to advance to the second round in the Atlantic 10 Tournament.
UMass, who entered the conference tournament losers of three of their last four, stepped up their scoring average as a team as the schedule shifted into conference play. The Minutemen scored nearly 80 points a night but only saw themselves at a 4-14 record.
Through the first six minutes, they were 9-12 from the field and 4-5 from deep and spotted themselves a 25-11 lead.
But then then the scoring stopped. The Minutemen would find themselves stagnant on the offensive end, committing turnovers, playing sloppy, and simply not getting their shots to drop.
After absorbing the initial punch from UMass, George Washington would slowly, but quietly chip away at the deficit as it was the Colonials defense that played the biggest role. The once quick double digit lead was cut to the just three after two free throws by Terry Nolan Jr. made it 28-25 with 4:38 left in the first half.
“Our guys are gritty,” said George Washington head coach Maurice Joseph. “We didn’t waiver. We continued to guard and weather the storm.”
A bucket by UMass would bring the lead back to five before free throws by Maceo Jack and a slam by Justin Williams would bring George Washington just one possession behind with time winding down the half.
The first 20 minutes would conclude with a series of turnovers followed by a half court heave that went in, but just after the horn. Nevertheless, the Minutemen held a 30-29 lead. While the heave didn’t count, it earned momentum points for the Colonials.
“It definitely gave us some energy,” said Maceo Jack. “We’ve struggled at times coming out at the start of the second half, but it gave us a push. That propelled us to go on the runs.”
George Washington would keep the game close and take their first lead of the contest two and a half minutes into the second half. The lead would be short lived as a free throw by Johnathan Laurent would knot things at 33.The Colonials would take two more one point leads, but those, like the first lead, was short lived.
UMass would re-take the lead with 12:48 left on a three by Carl Pierre to give the Minutemen a 41-39 lead. The offense would struggle down the stretch of the game, but UMass would remain in control. Their second half lead would get as large as six as Keon Clergeot got fouled on a three-pointer and drilled all three free throws to make it 53-47 with 5:55 left.
But George Washington wasn’t ready to go away.
The Colonials would score seven of the next eight points to tie the game at 54 with just over two minutes to play.
The game would be tied once again at 56 as each team would exchange layups. UMass had an opportunity to win it in regulation, but poor execution would lead to an extra five minutes to find a winner.
George Washington would score the first four points of the overtime period to jump out to a 60-56 lead a minute in. After UMass got on the board with a the free throw, Justin Mazzulla would knock down a pair of free throws to make it a five point lead with three minutes to play.
UMass however, would battle back and tie things at 63 thanks to a 6-1 run over the next three minutes, setting up another down to the wire finish. Nolan Jr. would help give the Colonials the lead once again courtesy of a layup with 27 seconds left.
Down the stretch of the game, UMass would get to the free throw line to keep them in the game, but would only go 10-22 from the charity stripe to take themselves out of it. The lack of consistency from the line would allow George Washington to grab the lead and extend the lead to four.
When the buzzer sounded, the Colonials advanced and set up a date with George Mason tomorrow afternoon.
“We have to go 1-0 in whatever’s next,” said Joseph. “UMass was our Super Bowl, and now we get a chance to compete against George Mason again. We’re excited about that opportunity.”
Terry Nolan Jr., who missed the games leading up to the conference tournament led the Colonials with 20 points.
“I was battling a foot injury, but I couldn’t miss this game and let me team down.” Said Nolan Jr.
UMass was led by Keon Clergeot, who scored a career-high 25 points. Although the career-high, execution is ultimately what led to the loss.
“Our effort was really good,” said head coach Matt McCall. “But our energy, the positivity in our program needs to happen now. The last two possessions of regular, we were poor executing.”
PHOTO: Terry Nolan Jr./gwsports.com