It would be hard to top the last time Xavier ventured into the unfriendly confines of the Smith Center to take on the GW men’s basketball team.
But the game there Saturday might come close.
Last time Xavier was in Foggy Bottom, the Colonials pulled off a thrilling victory against the 18th-ranked Musketeers Jan. 14, 1998. Mike King, then a freshman who had only played in two collegiate games, calmly nailed two free throws with no time remaining to send the game into overtime, where GW prevailed 78-73.
As big a game as that was for the Colonials, the game this weekend will have much more on the line. The winner will take the Atlantic 10 West Division title and the coveted No. 1 seed in the A-10 tournament March 3-6 in Philadelphia.
“Coach Penders mentioned that 97 percent of basketball players don’t have the opportunity to cut down the nets in their own building,” senior Yegor Mescheriakov said after GW’s win over Virginia Tech Wednesday. “We don’t want to be denied.”
Earlier this season, Xavier (20-8, 12-3 A-10) handed the Colonials their most lopsided loss of the season, 81-61, on the road. In that game, Shawnta Rogers, the A-10’s leading scorer, was held to just 11 points on 3-of-17 shooting, and the entire team shot 32 percent for the game. Penders said his big three – Rogers, King and Mescheriakov, who had just eight points in the last game with Xavier – will have to step up if GW is going to win Saturday.
“We have to come out poised and keep our composure,” said King, who scored 17 points in the last meeting. “We let (the last game against Xavier) run away from us. We forced a couple of bad shots, and we turned the ball over. We have to make them turn the ball over.”
Penders also said that the Cincinnati Gardens, Xavier’s home court, was the “most hostile environment” GW has played in so far this season, but he hopes the home court advantage will give the Colonials a boost Saturday.
“The home court has been very good to us, largely because of the enthusiasm and support of our students,” Penders said. “I’m sure they’ll be here and I hope they get here nice and early.”
The Colonials have been perfect at the Smith Center this season, posting an 11-0 record.
Beyond the implications for the postseason, the game will also be the last in the Smith Center for the three GW seniors – Seco Camara, and Mescheriakov and Rogers, who have carried the Colonials for the last three seasons.
“It’s going to be real emotional, but I can’t get into that,” Rogers said. “If I get emotional, that’ll throw me off my game. I’m not going to try to make it so emotional.”
Rogers, the favorite for the conference’s player of the year award, credits his improved statistics this season to Penders’ up-tempo style.
“He’s made me feel comfortable on and off the court, he’s like a dad I didn’t have that I can communicate with,” Rogers said. “If I would have had Coach (Mike) Jarvis back this year, we probably would’ve been successful, but I don’t think my stats would be as good as they are now.”
Despite a poor game at Temple Saturday, Rogers still led the A-10 in scoring average (21.0), assists (6.92) and steals (3.79) before GW’s win over the Hokies. Rogers would be the first A-10 player to finish the season leading the league in all three categories.
“He does what it takes to make us a winner and that’s the sign of a great player and a team player and a very coachable kid,” Penders said. “He’s a coach’s dream. I’m very blessed that Mike Jarvis recruited him and told him to stay.”
Mescheriakov has put together a solid senior season as well. He’s tied for seventh in the league in scoring at 16.5 points per game and is one of the league’s top-10 rebounders (6.4 per game).
Rogers said Mescheriakov is one of the best players in the league and in the country.
“What can’t that guy do?” he said.
Xavier is led by its own talented senior class, including forward James Posey, and guards Lenny Brown and Gary Lumpkin. Xavier has been one of the hottest teams in the nation in the second half of the season.
Last season’s win at Smith Center was the last time GW beat Xavier. The Musketeers have won five of the last six games in the series, including last season’s A-10 championship game.
“Every time we play (Xavier), it’s a war out there because everyone comes to play, because no one wants to get embarrassed,” Rogers said.
“It’s going to be a sloppy game like usual,” King said. “It’s always a sloppy game.