NEW YORK — George Washington men’s basketball coach Mike Lonergan had just completed a post-practice talk with his players Tuesday afternoon at Smith Center when Jonathan Tsipis, his counterpart for the Colonials women’s team, presented him with a cake in recognition for being “the real Atlantic 10 coach of the year.”
Saint Louis’s Jim Crews was named the actual recipient earlier in the day, but the gesture underscored the deep admiration for Lonergan in Foggy Bottom, where the third-year coach with a local pedigree directed one of the most emphatic regular season about-faces in the country to all but lock up an NCAA tournament bid.
Next on the agenda for the resurgent Colonials is advancing deep into the Atlantic 10 tournament at Barclays Center in Brooklyn. With 10 more victories than last season, George Washington (23-7) claimed the No. 3 seed and plays in the quarterfinals Friday night against sixth-seeded Massachusetts, a 65-61 winner over No. 11 seed Rhode Island on Thursday night.
“I wish we didn’t have one of the best turnarounds,” said Lonergan, who grew up in Bowie, attended high school at Archbishop Carroll and went to college at Catholic. “I wish we had won some more games last year, but I really saw the light at the end of the tunnel last year. I always think of seven games against really good teams and big-name schools that we could have won, and I knew that experience would help us this year.”
Last season at this time, the Colonials entered the Atlantic 10 tournament uncertain whether they could win one game. These days, George Washington has every reason to believe it can advance at least to Sunday afternoon’s final given how it has fared against the top teams in the conference.
The Colonials have wins over 23rd-ranked Virginia Commonwealth, which is the No. 2 seed in the tournament, and Saint Joseph’s, the No. 4 seed. They also pushed top-seeded and 18th-ranked Saint Louis on the road even without second-leading scorer Kethan Savage, who missed the final 12 games of the regular season with a broken left foot.
The sophomore point guard has been in and out of a walking boot recently, and Lonergan said the ideal scenario is for Savage to play limited minutes throughout the Atlantic 10 tournament. Savage (Episcopal) is averaging 13.4 points and 4.6 rebounds, and his anticipated return to the lineup would provide a much-needed infusion of depth for a roster that at times has lacked contributions from its reserves.
“That would be awesome,” sophomore guard Patricio Garino, who has been starting in place of Savage, said of his teammate possibly coming back this weekend. “We miss him so much. We need a ballhandler, a driver like him with so much energy. We really missed him in some games, and we hope he can make it, but we don’t want him to rush or anything.”
Bench scoring became such an issue late this season that Lonergan recently sat leading scorer Maurice Creek, normally a starter, against Richmond so the graduate guard could provide energy and scoring as a backup. The native of Oxon Hill and transfer from Indiana responded by scoring a team-high 16 points during a 73-65 road victory that kept the Colonials in position for a top-four seed.
GW was especially intent on finishing in the top four in the conference and getting a double bye in the tournament not only because it has given Savage additional time to recover but also to allow rest for sophomore Joe McDonald (Landon). The starting point guard has been receiving treatment for a hip injury that has been bothersome much of the season, and Lonergan questioned whether having to play three games in as many days would be too much.
McDonald most recently made a pair of foul shots with six seconds to play to help preserve Saturday’s 70-67 victory at Fordham in the regular season finale. He missed all six of his field goal attempts but contributed six rebounds and four assists without a turnover in the Colonials’ third consecutive triumph.
The upswing to close the season included a 76-71 victory over Saint Joseph’s on March 5 that fortified GW’s NCAA tournament résumé. The Colonials are 30th in the RPI, a statistical measure used by the NCAA tournament selection committee to rank teams, and have nonconference wins over 14th-ranked Creighton and D.C.-area rival Maryland, among others.
“We want to play free and loose every game,” Creek said. “Even if we were in a different situation, that’s how we would want to play just because you get more out of it. We don’t want to be thinking about it too much. Just go out there and play our game.”