RALEIGH, N.C. — What a story.
A team once picked to finish 10th in its own conference, finishing third and making it back to the big dance for the first time in seven years.
What a game.
Down by as many as 10 points in the second half, the Colonials cut the lead to two, off a fast-break layup from sophomore Patricio Garino with 2:39 left to play. Back-and-forth it went as the madness boiled over in the PNC Arena, until GW was left with one last opportunity to send the game to overtime.
What an ending.
The Colonials got the shot they wanted, from the player they wanted – graduate student Maurice Creek.
But not all stories have a happy ending.
Instead, No. 8-seeded Memphis held on for the 71-66 victory and advanced to the third round of the NCAA Tournament.
“I knew the ball was coming to me and Nemanja [Mikic] was giving me a great screen. I caught the ball cleanly, but it just didn’t fall,” Creek said. “And I felt like I got a great look, the best look I was going to get.”
In his final game as a Colonial, senior Isaiah Armwood led GW with 21 points on 9-for-12 shooting, sticking by his team despite picking up his fourth foul with 12 minutes left to play. Along with sophomore Kevin Larsen, who finished with 16 points after going a perfect 5-for-5 in the first half, the frontcourt duo carried the Colonials all game long.
And they would have to, as the rest of the GW starting lineup would go a combined 8-for-29.
The rough outside shooting, along with 10 points left at the free-throw line, disrupted the Colonials’ offensive rhythm. On the night, GW went 2-for-12 from beyond-the arc and shot 58 percent from the charity stripe.
“It just wasn’t my night and I’m glad these guys picked it up, picked me up, because I just didn’t have a great night,” Creek said.
Larsen looked like the Atlantic 10’s Most Improved Player he was named to be, using a combination of smooth and powerful moves in the post that left with Memphis with no answer.
The Tigers found their answer, though, on the offensive side of the ball. Coming in as the seventh most selfless team in the nation, Memphis dished out 19 assists on its way to 49 percent shooting.
Additionally, the Tigers turned eight steals into 15 fast-break points, turning up the pace whenever they had the chance.
“They do a good job, have active hands and get a lot of steals. We didn’t adjust,” head coach Mike Lonergan said. “They were stripping us, turning the ball over. We were trying to do too much individually.”
Senior guards Michael Dixon Jr. and Joe Jackson combined for 34 points – 21 coming in the second half – with Dixon Jr. going 2-3 from three-point range and 5-5 from the line.
Led by Dixon Jr., the Memphis bench would outscore GW’s reserves 25-3 – a familiar stat that has plagued the Colonials all season long since the loss of sophomore Kethan Savage. Of the starters, only Creek – who missed nine minutes in the first half getting ten stitches above his right eye – would play less than 35 minutes.
The Colonials stuck with their 1-3-1 defense for virtually the entire second half, and Memphis continually found holes in the zone for its shooters.
“Give their coach credit. They attacked it,” Lonergan said. “They were throwing alley-oops, driving it against us. They were taking twos instead of threes.”
The Tigers were liberal with their shot attempts, and rightly so, as their teammates were there to clean up the misses. Although GW closed the rebounding margin to 36-33, the Tigers outrebounded the Colonials 12-4 in the first half on the offensive glass.
Up 10 with 9:38 left to play, the game looked to be firmly in Memphis’ hands. But the Colonials had been in this situation before, and instead of trying to slow down the Tigers, began to keep pace with them.
An 11-3 run over three minutes of play down the stretch made the improbable comeback look likely. But it wasn’t meant to be.
“We’ve been in the games throughout the season where we were down more than that. We know the mistakes we made and we were only down five points and were fortunate at halftime to get back in the ball game, which we did,” Armwood said. “We just couldn’t put it up at the end.”
The loss ends GW’s season at 24-9 – tied for the second-most wins in program history.
What a painful way for the Colonials to leave Raleigh, N.C.
But what a season.