NCAA tournament 2014: GW basketball’s at-large bid leads to ‘rewarding feeling’

The George Washington men’s basketball team, its family and friends, school officials and supporters old and new convened on Sunday night to watch the NCAA tournament selection show. And when the Colonials’ name finally flashed on the screen, as expected, they let loose with a mighty cheer for a program that had gone seven years without a spot in the sport’s main event.

When the Colonials learned they would be heading to Raleigh, N.C., as the No. 9 seed in the East Region to face No. 8 Memphis in the first round at 6:55 p.m. Friday, players sprang up from their seats and hugged, high-fived, pumped their fists and began snapping pictures on their mobile phones. Coach Mike Lonergan stood up, smiled broadly and clapped with his wife and children by his side.

The announcement of GW’s first NCAA berth since 2007 seemed only a distant possibility when Lonergan took over three seasons ago. The Colonials (24-8)were all but an afterthought those first two years, but this resurgent season validated Lonergan’s assignment of rebuilding a program that has participated in the NCAA tournament 10 previous times.

“It’s a rewarding feeling,” Lonergan said from a lounge area adjacent to the court at Smith Center. “I come in here in this room a couple years ago before our games, we’re 10-21, and I just told people to hang in there, and we’re going to do it right. Sometimes when you do things the right way it takes a little longer, but I’m very happy for our players.”

Among those in the middle of the celebration was forward Isaiah Armwood (Montrose Christian), whom Lonergan frequently has called the first transformational player he was able to persuade to come to GW. The senior transfer from Villanova is first in rebounding (8.5) and third in scoring (12.5) for the Colonials, who had to wait until the final region was unveiled before the revelry was able to commence.

Armwood used his cellphone to reach out to one of his former Colonials teammates, David Pellom, who transferred to Memphis after sitting out 2012-13 with a wrist injury and graduating from GW. This season, Pellom is averaging 4.3 points and 2.9 rebounds as a reserve.

“It means a lot to me and the program as well to see how far we’ve come, me and Coach the three years we’ve been here,” Armwood said. “It just speaks to the work we’ve put in throughout the entire season.”

If GW beats Memphis, it would advance to Sunday’s second round to face the winner of a game between Virginia, the top seed in the East, and No. 16 Coastal Carolina. The Cavaliers received the last No. 1 seed after beating Duke, 72-63, in Sunday’s ACC tournament championship game.

The Colonials head into the NCAA tournament having advanced to the semifinals of the Atlantic 10 tournament for the first time since winning the championship in 2006-07. GW’s bid to reach the title game in Brooklyn, ended Saturday with a 74-55 loss to 23rd-ranked Virginia Commonwealth after the teams split the regular season series.

Going into the Atlantic 10 tournament, GW had won four in a row and five of six to fortify its NCAA tournament credentials, an overall resume that included victories over VCU, Creighton, Massachusetts and Saint Joseph’s, among others. Those schools have RPI rankings in the top 40, and the win against the Hawks became even more impactful when they defeated VCU, 65-61, on Sunday afternoon in the Atlantic 10 tournament championship game.

VCU received the No. 5 seed in the South Region and will play Stephen F. Austin at 7:27 p.m. Friday in San Diego.

The Atlantic 10 received six bids, the second most of any conference. Joining GW and VCU are Saint Louis, Saint Joseph’s, Massachusetts and Dayton, which was considered a bubble team.

“It’s big for our team, big obviously for the program,” Colonials sophomore point guard Joe McDonald said. “We’ve had a lot of support, and it’s good to give back to them. They’ve been supporting us since Day One. We’re excited to be here. This is something we’ve all been looking forward to.”

Gene Wang is a sports reporter covering multiple beats, including Navy football, the Capitals, Wizards, Nationals, women’s basketball, auto racing, boxing and golf. He also covers Fantasy Football.
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