Two weeks and one day before men’s basketball’s final triumph in the National Invitation Tournament Finals Thursday, everything was going wrong. The team looked like it was on its way to blowing a nine-point lead in less than three minutes and exiting the postseason in the first round of the NIT, which was already a disappointment in itself.
The only consolation might have been that not many people were there to witness the almost-meltdown. With students away on spring break, a measly 1,083 were reported in attendance in the Smith Center to watch the Colonials take on Hofstra and miss three consecutive three-point attempts down the stretch as the Pride scored on four straight possessions. It was a damp, humid night, and, to top it all off, the Metro was shut down.
With four seconds to go and the game tied for the first time since the first half, Alex Mitola hit a strange little runner off one foot to win the game. You probably know the rest of the story: The Colonials turned things around and won the first postseason championship in program history, beating Valparaiso in the NIT Finals. The fans came back, too, and as the GW faithful trailed deliriously out of Madison Square Garden Thursday night, they looked up to see the Empire State Building lit up in Buff and Blue.
“I can’t lie,” senior forward Kevin Larsen said. “Before we played Hofstra we were all like, ‘Do we really want to go into this?’ And all of us were like, ‘Yeah, let’s win this thing.’ I can’t lie, I’m getting a little bit old now so my knees and my back have been hurting a little bit, but it was all worth it. It was amazing.”
Let’s win this thing. That’s what the Colonials decided to do, and, suddenly, it seemed they got their mojo back. Some teams, including St. Bonaventure which seemed like a good candidate to make the NCAA tournament, folded quickly in the first round, perhaps bogged down in disappointment. The Colonials still seemed hungry to survive and advance.
“We got through that Hofstra game. They are a great team, and once Alex hit that shot to win, I think we were re-energized, refocused, and we just knew we had a mission to accomplish,” junior forward Tyler Cavanaugh said after the San Diego State win.
A friend of head coach Mike Lonergan’s had sent him a net in the mail during the season, and it became a good luck charm, staying in the locker room for Lonergan and the team to touch before every game. Now, Lonergan says, he can send that net back to his friend – he’s got a new one.
A little luck can’t hurt, but where the Colonials really started performing better was on defense. Their late-season slide included performances against Richmond, Saint Joseph’s and Davidson, where opponents shot 55 percent or better from the field.
When sophomore guard Yuta Watanabe held Monmouth leading scorer Justin Robinson to six points on 2-for-16 shooting, the Colonials had taken another step forward. That night, Lonergan’s message to the team was that they could go all the way.
“I just said, ‘Hey, we really have it and we can win this thing,'” Lonergan said.
GW then held No. 2 seed Florida to 43 percent shooting, No. 2 seed San Diego State to 28 percent and, finally, No. 1 seed Valparaiso to 39 percent. Especially in the final two contests, the team’s 1-3-1 zone was critical.
“Never thought I would say it,” Lonergan said. “I thought this defense actually won this championship.”
As the wins piled up, the fans came back. GW caught a break, getting to host Florida in the quarterfinals even though the Gators were the higher seed because Florida’s arena was under renovation. A crowd of 3,399 watched the Colonials earn their way to Madison Square Garden.
“The strong win at Monmouth on ESPN2 really helped folks to refocus and say, ‘Let’s enjoy what we have right now and embrace the NIT.’ The atmosphere for the Florida game was fun, and then the NY games allowed us to include our large New York City base who grew up knowing Madison Square Garden as the Mecca of basketball,” athletic director Patrick Nero said in an email. “Our department staff worked countless hours to make sure GW had the largest and loudest contingent. Our team gave them a lot to cheer about and that allowed it all to come together.”
Gathering the troops
The Colonial Army had a section right behind one of the baselines in the Garden and organized buses of fans traveling from D.C. to New York. Colonial Army President Kate Bell said the signup sheets for the buses filled up within hours. For the final minutes of the Valparaiso game, and several minutes after, cheers of, “Let’s go, G-Dub” filled the arena up to the rafters.
“I think that when students saw the work we were putting in, and saw how much was at stake for each of these games, they recognized that this was our last chance to really rally behind this team and give them the support they needed to make it to the championship,” Bell said. “Of course, as the games went on and we kept winning, that built a lot of momentum in itself.”
It was a genuine thrill for the fans, who just two weeks before weren’t sure how to feel about their team. They tweeted ecstatic praise and questioned whether it was the best postseason run in team history. Students who had been expecting an NCAA tournament bid might have lost interest towards the end of the season, but bought back in. And the run was particularly special for alumni who went to GW when the team was less successful.
“Being at the NIT Championship – especially in a historic venue like Madison Square Garden – was certainly a once-in-a-lifetime experience – at least for someone like me who has been cheering for the Colonials to win a postseason Championship for 29 years now,” Dean of Student Affairs Peter Konwerski said in an email.
“Personally, when I was an undergrad – I think my sophomore year of ’88–89 – I watched our team make GW history (and national news) by going 1–27, winning only one game. This week I also saw a team make some GW history too, by winning a record 28 games on their climb to earn the NIT championship,” Konwerski said.
Bell said that the games gave her a chance to reconnect with alumni, too.
“I was in Madison Square Garden talking to a few alumni who had made the trip up to New York City and I felt a tap on my shoulder. It was another GW alumni, probably about 85 years old, wearing an old GW shirt that had clearly been through more than a few basketball seasons,” Bell said.
The fan told her that he’d be up in the stands but looking down at the Colonial Army to cheer in unison with them.
“He said, ‘My voice is small, but I will be as loud as I can tonight,’” Bell said. “I think being a fan of your team in any capacity is a wonderful thing. But GW fans are something else. They’re the most loyal fans you’ll ever meet, and it’s because they’ve seen it all. They’ve been there through the most unbelievable highs and devastating lows and they still come out and cheer for the team as hard as they can.”
On Tuesday, when the Colonials advanced to the finals with a win against SDSU, regular admissions decisions went out. Newly accepted students could turn on ESPN to see GW play. Some even went to the games.
Given GW’s alumni base in the New York area, plenty of fans were in attendance. Cheers for the Colonials were the loudest in both games played in the Garden.
“I think every time we travel to either New York or Brooklyn, we have a very strong fan base,” senior forward Patricio Garino said. “We feel like we’re at home and that gives an advantage. I think we have to thank all the alumni, all the fans that travel from D.C. with the buses. I think it gave us an advantage, and with the confidence that we have people supporting us and knowing that we have more people than anybody feels really good and gives us that confidence.”
Living the dream
Lonergan, who said he was so depressed he could barely get out of bed after GW lost in the Atlantic 10 tournament quarterfinals to Saint Joseph’s, relished the chance to coach in the world’s most famous arena.
Everything started to feel big-time again, even though the Colonials were outside the Big Dance. Hofstra wasn’t well-known, but Monmouth had been a media darling and perceived NCAA snub. Florida came from the SEC and was historically successful. SDSU had made the NCAA tournament for six years in a row prior to landing a No. 2 seed in this year’s NIT – and is led by a coach who has won an NCAA Championship and the Naismith, as well as Coach of the Year for both the National Association of Basketball Coaches and Wooden Legends of Coaching Awards. Even Lonergan was a bit star struck.
“I looked down the other night, it’s unbelievable, Steve Fisher down there, I wanted to ask for his autograph. That’s fun for me. I mean, it really is. It’s fun for me to go against these guys that are famous and everything,” Lonergan said. “I always say I am a little D-III guy from Bowie kind of living the dream.”
The team’s fortunes changed so quickly that it did seem like a dream. All of a sudden, the Washington Nationals were congratulating GW on their Jumbotron. A reporter asked the team if they thought they might make a visit to the White House.
When GW’s NCAA Tournament dreams died, the season threatened to flicker out with them. But the team ended up making history – winning the first postseason national tournament in program history and setting a record for most wins in a single season. The tide turned with Mitola’s shot against Hofstra and the letdown gave way to the buildup to a title in the following games. Only two teams get to finish their postseason tournaments with a win, and the Colonials are one of them.
“To leave the NIT championship winners is so special,” senior guard Joe McDonald said. “Play like 37, 38 games and there aren’t a lot of teams that can have their final game for a championship, and we’re just as proud that it’s in this stage, and we’re happy that it ended this way for us.”