GET FIRED UP!! @GW_MBB Making History

GW is a two point underdog for tonight’s historic game at MSG (ESPN at 7pm ET). Tickets are cheap. Here is a round up of the previews.

NEW YORK — Competing in NIT Semifinal action for the first time in program history at Madison Square Garden, where Billy Joel has performed in front of sold-out crowds more than 30 times, GW men’s basketball is still keeping the faith for a NIT crown after a 65-46 win against San Diego State on Wednesday night.

Playing at MSG for the first time in his home state, Tyler Cavanaugh was the entertainer on Tuesday with a game-high 20 points and 11 rebounds, his third double-double in four NIT games, saying you’re my home to the world’s most famous arena.

This night was all GW’s as the Colonials led for the longest time, never trailing in a game they led by as many as 20 before cruising to victory.

Playing an Aztecs team that had won its first three NIT games by an average of 15.5 points per game, GW said you’re only human to San Diego State. Sometimes a fantasy, the Colonials defense was easy money in this contest, holding the Aztecs to .288 shooting (17-of-59) in the contest. 19-of-22 San Diego State threes fell in no man’s land, while GW also forced 11 turnovers that led to a 15-3 advantage in points off miscues.

GW led 35-20 at the half as despite shooting at a .389 clip in the opening stanza, San Diego State was limited to .240 (6-of-25) from the field. Though GW’s offense didn’t start the fire, the team found its shooting stroke in the second half and connected on 12-of-25 shots after intermission.

Cavanaugh evidently said I go to extremes during the halftime break as after finding his mark on just 3-of-11 first half field goals, he was a perfect 4-of-4 in the second half with big shot after big shot.

In the penultimate game of his collegiate career, Patricio Garino also scored in double figures for the Colonials with 13 points on 6-of-12 shooting as the GW faithful in attendance told the Argentinian swingman we like you just the way you are.

Joe McDonald wanted to get it right the first time as four of his game-high six assists came in the first half against zero turnovers. It was a matter of trust for GW with the ball all night as the team committed just six turnovers.

And so it goes for the Colonials, as with the win GW is now movin’ out to the NIT Championship Game. Everybody has a dream as GW now looks for its first-ever NIT crown on Thursday night at 7:00 pm against Valparaiso on ESPN.

What: No. 4 men’s basketball (27–10) vs. No. 1 Valparaiso (30–6), NIT Championship
Where: Madison Square Garden, New York, ESPN (TV)
When: Thursday, March 31 at 7 p.m.

Three weeks ago, GW blew a 14-point, Atlantic 10 tournament quarterfinal lead to Saint Joseph’s. Its 2015–2016 campaign, brimming with potential back in November, seemed to end in utter disappointment.

But on the last day of March, the Colonials are still kicking – just one victory away from becoming the winningest men’s basketball team in program history. GW’s unexpected NIT run reaches its climax Thursday night in the Big Apple with a championship battle against top-seeded Valparaiso.

After a hot regular-season start, which included wins over nationally ranked Virginia and Big East champion Seton Hall, the Colonials fizzled out in conference play, finishing 11–7 against A-10 opponents. As an at-large NCAA bid eluded them for a second straight year, the Colonials earned a No. 4 seed in the NIT.

Victories against Hofstra, Florida and an upset at Monmouth propelled GW to a semifinal matchup with a dangerous San Diego State squad. Tuesday night at Madison Square Garden, the Aztecs fell 65–46 while the Colonials executed one of their greatest defensive efforts all year.

The Crusaders entered the NIT at 26–6 after being upset by Green Bay in the Horizon League Tournament semifinals in a 99–92 overtime decision. As a No. 1 seed, Valparaiso has since carved its way to the NIT final with wins over Texas Southern, Florida State, Saint Mary’s and BYU.

While GW, with a skilled veteran roster, arguably did not live up to its fullest potential this season, seniors Joe McDonald, Kevin Larsen and Patricio Garino, as well as graduate student Alex Mitola, now have a shot at walking away as champions in their final game donning the buff and blue.

Case for the Colonials:
Redshirt junior forward Tyler Cavanaugh has been a workhorse for GW all year, leading the team with 16.9 points per game, and averaging 21.3 per game across GW’s four NIT contests. During that span, Cavanaugh has racked up three double-doubles, including a game-high 20-point, 11-rebound performance against the Aztecs.

As a team, GW is averaging an impressive 79.0 points per game in the NIT to the Crusaders’ 74.3. Senior swingman Garino has helped that effort with 15.8 points per game and a 59.6 percent field goal percentage, while fellow fourth-year Kevin Larsen posts a team-best 4.0 assists per game.

While Valparaiso is outrebounding GW on the season, in the NIT, Cavanaugh’s 9.8 boards per game guide a team rebounding effort of 39.8 per game to the Crusaders’ 38.5.

The Colonials will attempt to carry over a determined semifinal defensive effort, in which they held the Aztecs to a season-low 46 points and 28.8 percent shooting clip, and scored 15 points off 11 San Diego State turnovers. Valparaiso committed a season-worst 20 turnovers against BYU.

GW also owns a strong 16–3 record against nonconference opponents, while the Crusaders are 14–4.

Case for the Crusaders:
Valparaiso’s junior forward Alec Peters, a strikingly similar player to Cavanaugh, captains a talented offense with 18.4 points per game, while averaging 22.2 during the NIT. The 6-foot-9-inch big man also paces his team with 8.4 rebounds per game.

Senior guard Keith Carter adds 10.3 points and a team-best 4.4 assists per game.

The NCAA bubble team, part of the first four left out of the Big Dance, boasts an RPI of 49 to GW’s 65. Their deep roster contains nine players who average at least 15 minutes per game and averaged 76 points per game on the year.

In their 72–70 win over BYU, five Crusaders scored in double-figures, including Croatian sophomore forward David Skara, who put up a team-high 15 points off the bench.

Despite giving away a 16-point lead Tuesday, Valparaiso held BYU’s offense, one of the top 10 highest-scoring teams in country, to just 38.2 percent from the field and 7-for-21 from deep.

Senior center Vashil Fernandez helps lead the charge defensively as the the best shot blocker in the country. The 6-foot-10-inch Kingston, Jamaica native leads NCAA Division I with 114 total blocks and 3.26 per game.

The bottom line:
The contest marks the first-ever meeting between the two programs and the first trip to the NIT finals for either squad, so anything goes. Defensive focus will be key for both sides, as neither team plans to go down quietly after getting this far. GW remains the underdog, but it’s anyone’s guess as to who will end its season cutting down the nets at The World’s Most Famous Arena.

 Alex Mitola celebrates GW’s NIT quarterfinal victory over Florida. Hatchet File Photo by Dan Rich

Alex Mitola celebrates GW’s NIT quarterfinal victory over Florida. Hatchet File Photo by Dan Rich

Happy Thursday, Colonials!

And a happy Thursday it is indeed because the men’s basketball team is playing in its first-ever National Invitation Tournament finals tonight with a chance to set a program record for most wins in a season.

If you’re like many GW fans, though, it’s a weird kind of happiness. Let’s face it, no one started the season dreaming of cutting down the nets in the NIT. On the other hand, the Colonials are one of six college teams in the country still playing. Seniors Kevin Larsen, Joe McDonald and Patricio Garino, and graduate student Alex Mitola, get the chance to win their last game.

This season and this team have been hard to define. The big guy, Larsen, is the team’s best passer. McDonald, a point guard, is its most skilled rebounder. With a few key changes but essentially the same core, the Colonials went from being a team that won with defense last year to a sharpshooting bunch this year.

The results have been just as varied. In the second game of the year, students stormed the Smith Center court after the Colonials beat Virginia, a team that would go on to be a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament (let’s not talk about what happened after). The team started 10–1 and went on to be ranked in the Associated Press Top 25 for the first time in a decade.

No sooner had that number been fixed to the front of GW’s name than the team dropped a game at DePaul by 21 points. Not long after, the Colonials lost a bad game at Saint Louis. It was clear the problems were with GW’s defense when Richmond hung nearly 100 points in the Smith Center on Jan. 28.

Garino started his senior year full of hope after a fantastic summer with the Argentine national team, and on Feb. 6, when the Colonials got a rare victory at VCU behind his career-high 27 points, it seemed GW might turn things around. (It was right around that time when head coach Mike Lonergan got kicked out of his daughter’s high school basketball game, which is irrelevant, but let’s bring it up anyway. We’re just reminiscing here.)

As the Colonials hovered on the bubble, transfers like Matt Hart and Mitola relished the chance to play in March. Ultimately, GW knew that would mean the NIT when Saint Joseph’s mounted a second-half comeback and knocked the Colonials out in the quarterfinals of the A-10 Tournament.

In the first round against No. 5 seed Hofstra, it looked like the disappointment might be too much to overcome. GW, a No. 4 seed, needed an improvised buzzer-beater from Mitola to advance. Somewhere at the end of that game, something clicked. Between the time when Larsen carried Mitola off the court and when Lonergan started teasing him in the postgame press conference (watching those two go at it has been popcorn-worthy entertainment all season) it seemed like the Colonials decided that they didn’t like the idea of having to stop playing.

So they went to No. 1 seed Monmouth and didn’t give the team’s bench anything to celebrate. Larsen and Tyler Cavanaugh laid down the hammer against No. 2 seed Florida in front of a packed Smith Center, going out in style in their last home game of the season and earning a trip to Madison Square Garden.

There, the Colonials got a complete victory against San Diego State, an NCAA Tournament contender, which brings us to my favorite moment of this NIT so far, a quote given by Cavanaugh after the game.

“This is a great team. I mean, I’m so excited to be able to play two more days with them, one more game,” Cavanaugh said. “We’re a balanced team, and that’s very fun.”

Being balanced is fun? Really? I hate to break it to you, but Buddy Hield dropping 37 points to send Oklahoma to the Final Four is fun. Balanced is the basketball version of what head coach Mike Lonergan said he had for lunch the day before the semifinal: a green salad and an ice water.

Cavanaugh has a point, though, and even though it’s a little funny to hear the guy scoring 20-plus points per game in the NIT talk about balance, the Colonials seem to be embracing their oddball identity and having fun with it. They look pretty loose – it was amazing how quickly all five guys on the court came together and stayed composed after foul calls in particular, especially given how flustered SDSU was getting.

You should have fun too. GW plays No. 1 seed Valparaiso at 7 p.m. on ESPN. Read up on Valpo with our preview of the game, look back at the season through some of our best photos, then go enjoy it. This group of seniors has strung together three straight seasons with 20-plus wins, and this team has a chance at win No. 28, so they’re certainly going to.

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