Nursing a fragile 74–73 lead in the final minutes of an electric NIT quarterfinal Wednesday night, GW left Florida’s leading scorer Dorian Finney-Smith open for a three.
Head coach Mike Lonergan, turned away in frustration – it appeared lax team defense, a problem spot all year that had dissipated in GW’s last few games, had come back to haunt them.
But the shot didn’t fall. Senior forward Kevin Larsen gobbled up the rebound, Lonergan called timeout.
Out of the break, with 54 seconds remaining, redshirt junior forward Tyler Cavanaugh nailed an open three off a dish from graduate student guard Alex Mitola that pushed the Colonials (26-10) to a four-point edge, and ultimately, an 82–77 victory over the second-seeded Gators (21-15) at the Smith Center.
“I thought our guys were energized, we had trouble keeping them off the glass and a couple of crazy turnovers off the press but man was it a hard-fought game and luckily we made big plays.” Lonergan said. “That last three that Tyler hit was huge. That’s definitely the guy I want shooting from that spot.”
Cavanaugh’s 23 points, 18 of which came in the second half, was a game-high. The Wake Forest transfer hit half of GW’s eight three-pointers on the night, helping the Colonials go 47.7 percent from the field as a team.
Before Cavanaugh’s offensive explosion, however, his front-court partner provided the spark. Larsen scored 14 points in the final frame and 19 total, dominating the glass with a game-high 13 boards to propel GW to a 40–35 edge against the 24th-best rebounding team in the country.
“I didn’t want this to be my last game so I gave it everything,” Larsen said. “I felt like I had more weight on them, the guys that was guarding me, so I felt like if I got two feet into the paint I felt like I would score every time so that’s what I tried to do.”
“I mean Kevin [Larsen] went on a tear,” Cavanaugh said. “When he plays like that no one can guard him, I tell him that every day.”
But their SEC foe did not make it easy for GW to punch its ticket to Madison Square Garden by forcing 10 turnovers and going 14-of-16 at the line with four players scoring in double-figures.
Freshman guard KeVaughn Allen registered a team-high 22 points, but his team went just 43 percent from the field due to, for the most part, solid GW defense, which Larsen noted as the key to the win.
“We just haven’t been able to [play good defense] consistently and that’s what kept us out of the Big Dance but today [the team] was more focused,” Lonergan said. “We’ve been practicing well, Joe [McDonald]’s been practicing great and I think he’s really stepped us his game which is what we needed.”
Senior swingman Patricio Garino guided the Colonials in the first half with 11 points and finished with 13. As his veterans were rolling, Lonergan got the bench active early.
Sophomore Paul Jorgensen and junior guard Matt Hart provided a crucial spark off the pine, combining for nine points in the first half. Mitola added five in the second half to bump the bench total for the game up to 14.
Allen led the Gators with nine points in the frame as his team’s offense racked up nine assists, and 13 on the night, taking advantage of six GW turnovers.
A back-and-forth half had the Colonials up by just one with just slightly more than 20 seconds remaining, but beating multiple defenders with a sweet drive to the rim, senior guard Joe McDonald pushed GW’s halftime to a slightly more comfortable 39–36 halftime edge.
The Colonials began the second half in foul trouble after being assessed four personals in the first three minutes, which helped the Gators regain multiple leads throughout the frame.
Turnovers, off which Florida scored 14 points, also helped the visitors keep it close. A fierce press, especially in the last few minutes of the contest, led to fast transition buckets – like off a steal from Mitola right under the basket that cut the Gators’ deficit to 69–68.
“I was more disappointed we kept fouling, when we were trying to get our defense set we would bail them out,” Lonergan said. “And they were making their free throws and we weren’t so it got to be contagious.”
GW went an uncharacteristic 60 percent from the line as a whole, but with a 77–73 lead after Cavanaugh’s big three, he and Mitola combined for five clutch points from the stripe to close out the game.
The fourth-seeded Colonials now await an NIT semifinal matchup with second-seeded San Diego State in the World’s Most Famous Arena on Tuesday.