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By Max Porter, Contributing News Editor • February 26, 2024

Men’s basketball: How the 1-3-1 stole Christmas

John Kopriva and other members of the men's basketball team celebrate GW's 60-54 win over No. 11 Wichita State in the Diamond Head Classic championship game. Nora Princiotti | Hatchet Staff Photographer
John Kopriva and other members of the men’s basketball team celebrate GW’s 60-54 win over No. 11 Wichita State in the Diamond Head Classic championship game. Nora Princiotti | Hatchet Staff Photographer
This post was written by Hatchet staff writer Josh Solomon.

It was Christmas Day in Honolulu, and the Shockers were ready to unwrap a shiny new trophy.

There was just one problem: They couldn’t find it.

It, more specifically, was the basketball hoop down the stretch of Wichita State’s game against the Colonials as GW’s 1-3-1 zone flustered the Shockers and took away their chances of a holiday celebration at the end of the Diamond Head Classic final.

“I thought the 1-3-1 could match up well with keeping [junior guard Fred] VanVleet from penetrating,” head coach Mike Lonergan said. “It made them really run some clock and struggle to score a little bit.”

It was the zone that stole Christmas, a defensive strategy that helped the Colonials capture the coveted orb 60-54 in front of a U.S. audience on ESPN2, their first in-season tournament win since 2004 and their first win of the season over a ranked opponent.

Throughout the tournament in Hawaii, the 1-3-1 zone wasn’t the grinch that it was in the final game. But wheeling and dealing his subs, Lonergan showcased the maneuvering that has turned GW into a defensive juggernaut as the team set a record for lowest points allowed through three games at the event.

“Big team effort, and it shows that when we play together as a team, we can beat anybody,” Joe McDonald said. “We just give effort, our effort was at a maximum.”

In the first game of the tournament, GW didn’t need to play a chess match. The Colonials broke out their 1-3-1 zone for two possessions: Ohio made two threes, sharply passing diagonally through it. Aside from that, all they needed was man to man and the occasional 2-3 zone.

Colorado was different: The fight lasted all game. GW only showed the 1-3-1 once in the first half – a tendency for Lonergan. He saved it for the second half.

He broke it out with the game tied at 32 after the under-16 TV timeout. Freshman Yuta Watanabe was at the top, juniors Kethan Savage and McDonald at the wings, Kevin Larsen in the center and senior John Kopriva anchoring the back. The first possession resulted in a layup underneath the basket, followed by an open three pointer.

Junior Kethan Savage looks to make a pass during GW's 53-50 victory over Colorado in the Diamond Head Classic Semifinals. Nora Princiotti | Hatchet Staff Photographer
Junior Kethan Savage looks to make a pass during GW’s 53-50 victory over Colorado in the Diamond Head Classic semifinals. Nora Princiotti | Hatchet Staff Photographer

Soon, GW switched junior Patricio Garino to the top of the zone, but to little effect. While in the 1-3-1 in the second half, the Colonials merely outscored Colorado 19-18. The key steal by McDonald, leading to his momentum-turning layup, came in a 2-3 zone, played out of an inbounds play.

It wasn’t until seconds to play that the 1-3-1 frustrated Colorado. Star guard Askia Booker brought the ball up the court, tried to go around Savage – the top defender in the zone – and jacked up an NBA-range three to no avail. That was the Buffaloes’ last full possession to make something happen.

The Shockers were a different case. They did not appear to fear the 1-3-1 zone, perhaps because GW played near even with its two prior opponents when aligned in it.

But by the end of the game, the Colonials had dominated Wichita State while in the 1-3-1 zone. It helped them outscore the Shockers 20-9 over the last eight minutes and 30-20 overall while playing it.

“Sometimes we come really high, sometimes we just pack it in, depending on our personal, and sometimes we trap the corners,” Lonergan said. “It’s really just trying to throw different people up top.”

The Colonials showed it during the first half, but it wasn’t until the second that Savage did momentum-changing damage, guiding Lonergan’s sleigh at the top of the key.

Lonergan called him deceptively quick and a great athlete. Savage said he just wanted to be aggressive.

On back-to-back plays, Savage was on guard atop the defense, sometimes venturing into the half court. His hands dancing in the lane and feet active, he stole the ball. Then he did it again, and GW was back in the game – courtesy of the 1-3-1 who stole Christmas.

“Coach just put me on top of the 1-3-1 and I just wanted to … kind of telegraph the game a little bit, and I got in the passing game and was able to tip it out a little bit,” Savage said.

Just when it would seem logical to leave in the dynamic combo guard, Lonergan castled in his sixth-man rookie, Watanabe, to front the zone.

“When you put a guy up top, he gets so tired,” Lonergan said. “I had to get [Savage] out because he was just exhausted.”

It was the game changer, and led to the momentum GW needed to make their run back from what had been an eight-point deficit.

Meanwhile, Watanabe was skillful with his length at the top, despite his lack of experience. The freshman went over and around high ball screens, keeping in contact with the Shockers’ dangerous duo of guards. He had a big game overall, adding 10 points to his defense.

Lonergan maneuvered his set of players until he had his checkmate, while 2014 National Coach of the Year Gregg Marshall was left playing checkers. Though the win over the elite squad was an upset, it should surprise no one that the Colonials were able to rely on their defense.

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