Shawnta Rogers wasn’t going to let Xavier – or the flu – stop him.
A championship was on the line. It was his last game in the Smith Center, and the 5,454 raucous fans who filled the arena Saturday almost expected something special from Rogers. He didn’t disappoint.
The 5-4 senior hit a three-pointer at the buzzer to break a tie with Xavier on Senior Day, giving the GW men’s basketball team a 77-74 win and its first-ever outright Atlantic 10 West Division title.
Rogers, who had been sick with flu-like symptoms all week, was held to one point in the first half. But he exploded for 17 second-half points, including five three-pointers.
“I didn’t feel too bad because I knew this was senior night, and there wasn’t anything that was going to stop me from playing,” Rogers said.
Xavier’s Lenny Brown calmly hit two free throws to tie the game at 74 with 42.1 seconds left. The ball stayed in Rogers’ hands for most of GW’s final possession after head coach Tom Penders called a 20-second timeout with 34.9 seconds left.
With the shot clock running down, Rogers worked the ball to Yegor Mescheriakov in the post. Penders said he was surprised when Mescheriakov didn’t take the shot and kicked the ball back out to Rogers, who threw up a three-pointer.
“Every time the ball releases from my hands, if it’s not slipping, I feel it’s good,” Rogers said.
But this one wasn’t. Rogers’ shot caromed off the rim as the shot clock hit zero and with time all but gone.
In the ensuing battle for the ball, freshman Andry Sola tipped the ball to Mike King, who passed the ball to a wide-open Rogers at the top of the key.
This one found the bottom of the net, and bedlam ensued as students flooded the floor to mob the team and celebrate GW’s championship. The Colonials also have won all 12 games at the Smith Center this season. GW last went undefeated at home in 1995-’96.
Rogers’ performance was even more impressive considering what his body has been through. Penders said Rogers has been sick since GW’s loss to Temple Feb. 4. After playing in a win over Virginia Tech Wednesday, Rogers was running a fever of 103 degrees. Penders had said earlier that Rogers might even miss the Xavier game.
“Shawnta was playing on fumes,” Penders said. “You can’t say enough about the heart that that young man has. I’ve had some great players and some guys with big hearts and characters. There’s nothing that I can think of right now that shows more courage than what he showed today.”
The Colonials (19-7, 13-3 A-10) looked like they were in trouble at the start of the second half when a six-point GW halftime lead evaporated. Xavier went on a 20-6 run over the first four minutes of the half. Versatile forward James Posey made three three-pointers during the stretch, and Brown capped off the run with a three to give Xavier a 47-39 lead.
“A championship is at stake, we’re not going to roll over,” Xavier head coach Skip Prosser said. “GW wouldn’t be rolling over if the situation were reversed. It was a heavyweight fight.”
Penders took two timeouts during the Xavier run to slow its momentum and said Rogers wouldn’t let his team give up.
“When I called the timeouts he (Rogers) just kept saying `We’re not losing, we’re not losing,'” Penders said. “He just refused to let us lose. When they had that run and it looked bleak, he took over the game.”
The Colonials started chipping away at the Musketeers’ lead, and with GW down three at 51-48, Rogers ignited. He hit a three-pointer from the top of the key at the 11:04 mark, and about a half a minute later, he nailed another one from nearly the same spot to give the Colonials the lead back.
“I couldn’t get in the flow early in the game, so I knew I had to pick it up because Yegor was carrying us the whole game,” Rogers said. “Somebody had to step up and make shots.”
Xavier (20-9, 12-4 A-10) tied the game at 61 and 66, but both times Rogers hit a three-pointer to give GW the lead back. Xavier tied the game three more times down the stretch but never took the lead.
GW won the game the way it has won most games this season – by making Xavier turn over the ball and taking many more shots than the Musketeers.
GW forced 26 Xavier turnovers, 17 coming on Colonial steals, while GW turned the ball over just nine times and only twice in the second half. The Musketeers hit 51 percent of their shots while the Colonials shot just 36 percent, but GW took 21 more shots from the field.
“I thought the intensity of the game was certainly high caliber, I don’t know if the play was,” Prosser said. “We’re usually relatively careless (with the ball), but not that careless.”
GW held a lead for much of the first half as it had success beating Xavier’s full-court press, which stifled the Colonials in an 81-61 loss Jan. 17 in Cincinnati. In practice, the Colonials tried breaking pressure from seven players without Rogers because Penders wanted him to conserve energy.
With Rogers in the game, it was even easier to break the press, and Mescheriakov was the biggest benefactor. He was freed for several easy dunks in transition in the first half. He finished with 20 points to go along with 10 rebounds. But the Musketeers abandoned the press in the second half when they came back to take the lead.
“I wanted (Xavier) in the press,” Penders said. “We worked real hard at it. We had time to prepare this time – we didn’t the last time we played Xavier.”
Almost as important as the division title, GW now gets the west’s first seed in the A-10 Tournament, which means the Colonials will not face either Xavier or Temple again until the championship game. They will face either St. Bonaventure or Dayton Thursday at 7 p.m. at the First Union Spectrum in Philadelphia.
“It feels good to get a title, an Atlantic 10 title on the west side,” said Rogers, who played on GW teams that tied for first in the division in 1996 and 1998. “Not being tied anymore or coming in second place, it feels real good.”
Also on GW’s side of the bracket are St. Joseph’s, La Salle and Rhode Island. GW would play one of these three teams if it reaches the semifinals.
Looking ahead to the NCAA Tournament, Penders said he believes his team is in.
“I felt like our 18 wins locked us for the tournament in all honesty but I didn’t want to tell the team that. I said we need one more and Shawnta and I are going to tell the team on Monday we need one more,” Penders said. “We’ll find some computer report somewhere that says we’re not in and it’ll be up on the bulletin board, you can bet on it.”