Only 20 miles separate the George Mason and George Washington campuses, but until this season, the mid-level basketball programs operated in separate spheres and only had met 12 times. With the Patriots’ arrival in the Atlantic 10, however, a local rivalry truly hatched Saturday at Patriot Center.
The Colonials claimed early bragging rights, flexing their muscles in the second half and pulling away from the free-falling Patriots, 75-69, before a crowd of 7,714.
Decades in the making, the inaugural conference meeting created greater buzz than a typical league game. Several hundred visiting fans filled upper sections, and the respective student bodies exchanged mild insults.
By the end, only GW supporters could be heard in the fast-emptying arena, celebrating a fourth consecutive victory and a share of second place in the Atlantic 10.
“It’s great for the DMV,” Colonials Coach Mike Lonergan said. “For the area, for the conference and for the schools, it’s terrific. For our students, too. We had a lot of students. They put them up in the cheap seats — I couldn’t really see them. Great crowd. I’m excited for when [the Patriots] come to our place” March 2.
The Colonials (16-3, 4-1) shot 67 percent in the second half to turn a back-and-forth game into a breezy victory. Five players scored in double figures in GW’s first game since sophomore guard Kethan Savage (13.4 points, 4.6 rebounds) was ruled out for six to eight weeks with a foot fracture.
Point guard Joe McDonald scored all 14 of his points in the second half, center Kevin Larsen finished with 14 and guard Maurice Creek posted six of his seven assists after intermission.
Forward Johnny Williams equaled his career high with 18 points for the Patriots (7-13, 0-6), who have lost seven straight — their longest streak since a skid bridging the 1997-98 and 1998-99 seasons.
Typical of their A-10 season, the Patriots were competitive in the first half before faltering in the second.
“We’re better than this,” Coach Paul Hewitt said. “We’ve played really well early in games because of our practice habits, but when we get in a spot where someone makes a run at us, we’ve got to hold it a little tighter.”
The Patriots showed promise, utilizing Williams and forward Jalen Jenkins to claim a 30-29 halftime lead. Jenkins, Williams and Sherrod Wright combined to shoot 12 for 16 and accounted for all but three points.
“We played harder than them and paid attention to detail,” said Jenkins, a freshman who finished with 13 points, 11 rebounds, four assists and three blocked shots. “There really wasn’t a wasted possession in the first half.”
After the break, GW forward Isaiah Armwood (10 second-half points) set the tone by attacking Jenkins in an effort to draw fouls and open the perimeter. The strategy worked. Jenkins left with foul trouble, and with Armwood scoring six during an 8-0 run, GW built a 10-point lead.
“He got me on my heels a little bit in the first half,” said Armwood, who was limited to four first-half minutes with foul issues. “I knew I had to stay disciplined.”
The game opened up. In a four-minute span, Creek passed to cutting teammates for three thunderous dunks.
GW led by at least 11 points for most of the final eight minutes.
With Savage sidelined, “everyone is going to have to step it up,” Lonergan said. “We have no one who really plays like Kethan, so we are going to have to make up for some of the things as a team.
“But that is one good thing about our team; we really are a team. We’re unselfish,” Lonergan added, pointing to 20 assists on 29 baskets and only nine turnovers.
The Colonials will seek to avenge their league loss Wednesday when La Salle (11-8, 3-2) visits Smith Center. The Patriots are off until Saturday’s game at No. 19 Saint Louis (18-2, 5-0).