GW captures first postseason title with decisive victory over Valparaiso.
By James Irwin
Joe McDonald wrapped his arms around Kevin Larsen and the two seniors broke into smiles that seemed to stretch from one end of Madison Square Garden to the other.
“I think when I first got here, it was kind of in the rebuilding stages,” Mr. McDonald said of the George Washington men’s basketball program. “I knew that. And we had a strong class coming. Honestly we just wanted to change the culture and get back to winning basketball at GW.”
He and the Colonials did that in a big way Thursday. Mr. Larsen scored 18 points, Mr. McDonald added another 13, and GW capped off the winningest season in program history with a 76-60 victory over Valparaiso to win the National Invitation Tournament.
“There are not a lot of teams that can have their final game for a championship,” Mr. McDonald said. “And we're just as proud that it's on this stage and we're happy that it ended this way for us.”
Mike Lonergan cuts down the net following GW's win over Valparaiso on Thursday (Athletics Communications)
It is GW’s first postseason title. The Colonials (28-10) also set a program record for wins in a season, eclipsing the previous mark of 27 set by the 2005-06 team.
A tight game at halftime turned into a runaway after the intermission. GW led, 32-31, at the break, and then clamped down defensively and stretched the lead to nine early in the second half. The Colonials went up by a dozen on a 3-pointer by Matt Hart with 12:26 remaining. Valparaiso never got within 10 the rest of the way.
“I think we were feeling comfortable this whole tournament,” said senior Patricio Garino, who finished with 14 points. “I think our defense was clicking. We felt very comfortable and confident, and I think that's what led us to feel even better offensively.”
Junior Tyler Cavanaugh, who scored 85 points and pulled down 39 rebounds in GW’s first four NIT games, was named the tournament’s most outstanding player. The junior forward had 12 points Thursday, one of four Colonials in double figures.
Tyler Cavanaugh was named the NIT's most outstanding player, averaging 19.4 points and nine rebounds in the tournament. (Athletics Communications)
The night belonged to the seniors.
Playing in their final collegiate games, Mr. Garino, Mr. Larsen and Mr. McDonald accounted for 45 of GW’s 76 points. The three 1,000-point scorers helped lead a renaissance during their four years in Foggy Bottom. The Colonials went 13-17 in 2012-13, and then won 20-plus games the past three seasons, reaching the NIT twice and the 2013-14 NCAA tournament.
“Their first year, we might have been 13-17, but we lost one-possession games to some of the best teams in the country and I knew we would be good after that,” GW Coach Mike Lonergan said. “We stuck with them and they believed in what I was selling.”
Graduate student Alex Mitola also played his final game for GW on Thursday. His running jumper in the closing seconds lifted the Colonials to a win over Hofstra in the opening round of the NIT last week, sparking GW’s postseason surge.
The Colonials celebrate their NIT championship (Athletics Communications).
The championship caps a season that began with lofty expectations in Foggy Bottom. The Colonials defeated Virginia—then ranked sixth in the country—in November in the opening game of ESPN's Tip-Off Marathon. It was GW’s biggest upset win in 20 years and launched the team to a 10-1 start to the season. The Colonials went 11-7 in Atlantic 10 play, and an 86-80 loss to St. Joseph's in the A-10 tournament left them outside the NCAA tournament picture on Selection Sunday.
“It was tough but we knew we kind of shot ourselves in the foot a few times in the regular season losing to some teams,” Mr. Cavanaugh said. “But we got through that Hofstra game, and once Alex hit that shot to win, I think we were re-energized, refocused and we just knew we had a mission to accomplish.”
They defeated Monmouth and Florida to reach the NIT semifinals, and then dispatched San Diego State on Tuesday to advance to Thursday’s title game.
“We played our best basketball end of March,” Mr. Lonergan said. “I told them I wanted, instead of senior night, I wanted it to be senior month. And that's what it was. This is a big deal for our university, our players and our program, and I'm proud of these guys that helped put our program back on the map.”