RALEIGH, N.C. — Twice in the final minute Friday night, Mike Lonergan had a perfect view of what he thought was the perfect shot — exactly what his George Washington men’s basketball team needed.
“I just thought if we got the game tied after they had been ahead for so long, the momentum would have been with us,” he said when it was over. “Two good shooters, open shots . . . ”
His voice trailed off. Hyper as always yet clearly exhausted, Lonergan stood in a hallway at PNC Arena hearing the sounds of another basketball game going on a few yards from where he stood, his mind jumping from the recent past to the near future to the distant future — all in the span of about a minute.
The Colonials’ resurgent season had ended a few minutes earlier with a 71-66 loss to Memphis in the NCAA tournament round of 64 after Nemanja Mikic and Maurice Creek, the team’s best three-point shooters, couldn’t convert open shots that would have tied a game that GW had never led and had last been tied at 4 with 17 minutes 41 seconds left in the first half.
Creek’s miss — an air ball — with less than a second left and Memphis leading, 69-66, sealed the Colonials’ fate.
For Creek, Mikic and Isiah Armwood, the loss meant that college basketball is now in their past. Lonergan has talked often about how much the two transfers — Armwood two years ago from Villanova, Creek this season from Indiana — have meant to his program.
“I feel sad for all three seniors, because I know this is the end for them” he said. “I really wanted to come down here and win this game.” He lowered his voice as if sharing a secret. “I thought this was a good matchup for us.”
It might have been a good matchup if the Colonials had been completely healthy. They had played without Kethan Savage, their second-leading scorer, since Jan. 18 when he broke his foot during GW’s win at Saint Bonaventure. The Colonials were 15-3 after that victory, but went 9-6 without Savage.
Point guard Joe McDonald has played on two bad hips all season and clearly had trouble trying to get into the lane against Memphis’s quick, experienced guards throughout Friday’s game.
In addition to that, Creek caught a random elbow less than three minutes into the game and needed 10 stitches over his left eye. He had taken — and missed — one shot when he got hurt and he didn’t come back until eight minutes later. He never did find a shooting rhythm.
Excuses, of course, are for losers. GW had played without Savage — except for one minute in the Atlantic 10 tournament — for two months. McDonald has played through pain all season and will have hip surgery soon. And Creek made it clear that his shooting on Friday — 2 of 13 — had nothing to do with the stitches and everything to do with Memphis’s defense and, well, a bad night at the worst possible time.
“I’m just glad my teammates picked me up and kept us in the game,” Creek said. “We stayed around long enough that we had a chance to win.”
They did, in large part because Armwood was superb in his final game in a GW uniform, scoring 21 points in spite of playing most of the second half with four fouls. Kevin Larsen and Patricio Garino — two of the four sophomores who will be the heart of this team next season — also played well and McDonald, in spite of shooting poorly, hung in and played 37 gritty minutes against a team that likes to pressure non-stop.
“He’s hurting, but I can’t take him out,” Lonergan said. “I want to say he’s 80 percent but I might be wrong. He’s such a tough kid, he won’t really tell you how much it hurts.”
Almost all basketball seasons end on what-ifs. For the seniors, that’s always painful because the real world isn’t far behind the final buzzer. For underclassmen and coaches, the disappointment isn’t quite as acute because there’s next season and there’s another chance. That’s why, in the quiet postgame locker room, after he had thanked his seniors for everything they had done for the program, Lonergan looked at his younger players and said, “Let’s make sure we aren’t one-hit wonders.”
There’s always reason for that sort of concern. As Lonergan noted Friday, La Salle returned seven of its top eight players from a Sweet 16 team in 2012-13 but finished 15-16 this season. There are no guarantees, especially when seniors as mature and tough-minded as Armwood and Creek graduate.
The sophomores need to improve between now and next fall and Lonergan has to hope that the players he has signed for next season can fill in the gaps left by the seniors.
“I told the guys in a couple of weeks they’ll be able to look back and understand that we had a great season,” he said. He smiled wanly. “It’ll probably take me a little longer than that. But I know we came a long way this year, got turned around in the right direction. I just would have liked to have played Sunday and seen what would have happened.”
The seniors felt the same way and yet they seemed to understand that this ending comes eventually and, as disappointed as the finish was, they were clearly at peace with it.
“This season was everything I asked for from head to toe,” said Creek, who missed most of three seasons at Indiana with injuries before transferring to GW this fall as a graduate student. “We started out with very little respect and then started winning and got more respect as we kept winning. That’s what we wanted.”
They would have loved to have won at least once more, a bonus to an already golden season. They came painfully close. Trailing 67-64 with just less than a minute left, Mikic got a wide-open look at a three-pointer from the right elbow and it rimmed out. McDonald actually got them to within 67-66 with his only field goal of the game with 15 seconds to go. Then Michael Dixon Jr. hit two free throws and Memphis led 69-66.
Lonergan called time to set up a play to tie the score. Mikic and freshman shooting specialist Nick Griffin were the decoys. Creek came open at almost the same spot where Mikic had been but the shot never had a chance. It missed wide left — an air ball.
“I caught the ball cleanly and it didn’t fall,” Creek said quietly. “I had a very good look and it just didn’t fall.”
To Lonergan, it appeared that Creek had rushed the shot.
“Two cracks at it,” he said. “If one falls then maybe . . . ”
He shrugged. “We had a great season. They gave me everything I could have asked them for.”
Except one more swish. Which could have led to one more win. And at least one more chance to play.
For more by John Feinstein, go to washingtonpost.com/feinstein.