NEW YORK — Joe McDonald, Patricio Garino, Kevin Larsen and Alex Mitola will end their careers as Colonials in a title match.
With a 65-46 win over San Diego State Tuesday night in Madison Square Garden, GW punched its ticket to the National Invitation Tournament’s finals. The Colonials will face Valparaiso on Thursday night at 7 p.m. with a chance to cut down the nets and become the winningest team in program history.
“I’m proud of them,” head coach Mike Lonergan said. “We are playing for a championship. We know it’s not going to be easy and I can’t wait for Thursday night and I’m very happy I get to coach these guys for two more days.”
Redshirt junior forward Tyler Cavanaugh led the charge with 20 points and 11 rebounds, capping his night with a deadeye three-pointer with two minutes to go that put GW up by the game’s final margin. On the next play, GW’s reserves came in to close it out on the Garden hardwood.
The outcome had been determined by that point, but when GW raced out to a 6-0 lead, it was a surprise. SDSU owned the No. 2 defense in the country according to stats guru Ken Pomeroy’s rankings. But instead of getting soaked up in a half-court game, the Colonials came out running, led by Garino who scored most of his 13 points in transition. Instead of being flummoxed by the Aztec press, GW tallied 17 assists, six from McDonald.
“That was key for us, handling that press that they had,” Garino said. “We talked about it a lot during our scouting and I think we did a great job, Alex, Joe, Paul [Jorgensen], even Kevin and Tyler, I think we were secure with the ball and making the right passes.”
The Colonials had poured over SDSU’s defense, but the Aztecs’ offense was a bit more of a question mark: SDSU had struggled to score during the regular season, but was as red hot as the team’s crimson uniforms coming into the game. GW’s opponent had won its first three NIT games by scoring 79, 93 and 72 points.
But the Colonials came out focused on defense. Garino drew two early charges, setting the tone that GW would not just get out of the way. And with presence established in the lane, the Colonials wound up forcing the Aztecs to shoot bad threes all night. SDSU finished the game 3-for-22 from beyond the arc.
“We wanted to make their shots come from the outside and that got our offense going,” Lonergan said. “We wanted them to shoot a lot of threes.”
After getting on the board with a three-point play the old fashioned way, SDSU managed to tie the game at six early. Then, the Colonials came back with a stretch in which they hit 12-of-15 from the field. GW led 35-20 at halftime.
GW’s biggest scare came late in the first half when McDonald sprained his left ankle. He went back in the tunnel early, limping, but was out to play the second half, which should surprise no one who has seen him play through countless bumps and bruises over the last four years.
The Colonials came out, as they often do, in the 1-3-1 zone to start the second half. In lesser performances, the zone has been demolished and abandoned (in that order) but on Tuesday it was stellar. The zone not only allowed McDonald to keep playing, protected on its weak size, but made the Aztecs keep shooting even more threes. They might as well have been shooting from back home in San Diego.
The Aztecs got inside the zone on a few possessions and scored 14 points on second chances, but they had no other weapons firing and finished shooting 28 percent from the field. Dakari Allen, aided by a 6-for-6 night from the free throw line, was SDSU’s only double-digit scorer with 13 points.
No one else got more than seven. The team was impressive around the rim on defense, blocking six shots, but never threatened for the final 30 minutes of the game. Even when GW went through a 1-for-6 stretch in the middle of the second half, the lead never slipped below 14.
“This is a great team,” Cavanaugh said. “I mean, I’m so excited to be able to play two more days with them, one more game. We’re a balanced team and that’s very fun. Everyone contributes and that’s why we won tonight.”
So it’s on to Valparaiso, on to a game that – once and for all – will end a season that seemed over on a few separate occasions. As it turns out, GW’s going to milk this one for just a little bit longer.