College coaches love to talk about peaking at the right time, with that time being just prior to the conference tournament. Apparently all is forgiven if a team catches fire down the stretch, and William and Mary is doing just that right now.
The Tribe used lights-out three-point shooting and stifling defense to win its third straight game, taking down a streaking Georgia State 75-63 at home. Junior guard Brandon Britt led the way with 20 points on 6 of 8 shooting from three, and all five College starters finished in double figures.
“We’re playing great basketball; we really are,” head coach Tony Shaver said. “Obviously we’re shooting the ball well … but the biggest change in this club has been the defensive change. … We extended our defense tonight and really did a great job stopping them.”
The Panthers (14-15, 9-7 CAA) entered the contest as the second-best three-point shooting team in the conference at 36.7 percent, but the Tribe (12-14, 6-9 CAA) locked down the perimeter, holding Georgia State to 6 of 24 shooting from distance and just 43.5 percent from the floor.
Meanwhile, the College lit it up from outside, taking advantage of Georgia State’s 1-3-1 zone to knock down 10 of its first 12 attempts from three and finish at 12 of 18 from beyond the arc. Nearly matching Britt was senior guard Matt Rum, who tied his career-high of 16 points on 4 of 6 from downtown and 4 for 4 at the line. As a team, the College has shot 38.7 percent from the three during the winning streak, which — over the season — would be the best percentage in the conference.
“I’ve been getting extra shots up on my days off, and today they happened to fall for me,” he said. “I’ve been waiting for them to fall like that the whole season, and today they went in for me. … We’re all catching fire, we’re paying with confidence, and we’re all shooting the ball great.”
Rum also finished with three rebounds and one assist. Just as importantly, he was able to hold the Colonial Athletic Association’s premier freshman, guard R.J. Hunter, below his average with just 15 points.
“Hunter’s going to have nightmares about Matt Rum,” Shaver said. “He really did a great job on him.”
The College played a dominant first half, out-rebounding the Panthers 18-9 and going 8 of 10 from deep — four of those from Rum, three from Britt and one from sophomore guard Marcus Thornton — over the first 20 minutes. Rum scored 9 of the Tribe’s first 16 as the College opened up a 10-point lead by the midpoint of the half.
Thanks to Britt — who has now scored 22, 18 and 20 in his last three contests while shooting 62.5 percent — the Tribe grew its lead to as much as 16 in the first.
“I’m just having fun out there,” Britt said. “When I believe in myself and play with confidence, there’s a lot of great things I can do out there on the court. … Everybody’s shooting the ball well in practice, the guys are shooting well, and I’m making sure I get extra shots up after practice, and it’s paying off.”
The second half began with the Tribe up 38-27, and the Panthers seemingly having learned nothing. On the College’s first two possessions, Rum was left wide open on the right corner to bury a three off a Thornton feed before Britt found space in the left corner to do the same. And with 18 minutes, 45 seconds left, Thornton didn’t need room, hitting a contested trey to cap a 9-2 run and put the College up 47-29.
But Georgia State had won two straight and wouldn’t fall without a fight, nearly eliminating the College’s rebounding advantage and responding with a 15-1 run that cut the Tribe’s lead to just four with 14:44 remaining. Just like that, it was a ballgame again.
With a renewed sense of urgency, the College’s offense got going. Thornton danced around a defender, got to the elbow, and fit in a beautiful bounce pass to junior forward Kyle Gaillard, who hit a reverse layup and the ensuing free throw to put the Tribe back up by 7.
Gaillard also had a nice game, scoring 10 and grabbing 9 rebounds.
“It’s a game of runs,” Shaver said. “I don’t like to see them score 11 points in two minutes like they did, but what’s important is [that] we responded to that run.”
The College pushed the lead back out to 11 with 8:05 to play before really turning it on again, launching a 7-0 run that finished with a Britt three with 5:53 left. As the Panthers went cold from the free throw line, the College held on until Hunter was called for a charge with 2:05 left and GSU trailing 71-58, effectively sealing it.
At No. 8 in the conference with three regular-season games left, the Tribe will carry its streak up to Fairfax, where it will look to avenge a January loss against George Mason Saturday.
“I don’t think anybody wants to see the Tribe right now,” Rum said. “George Mason’s tough … but we owe them one.”