RALEIGH, N.C. – In the long run, when the frustration of a long, disappointing night fades, George Washington’s season could be seen as a cornerstone.
That was the hope, anyway, throughout a surprising season, which ended Friday night with a 71-66 loss to Memphis in an East Region round-of-64 game. That reason is what a group of upstart players, along with their high-energy coach, might cling to as they wonder why their first NCAA tournament appearance in seven years ended so quickly, why a late comeback attempt fell slightly short.
“In a couple weeks, I’ll look back,” Colonials Coach Mike Lonergan said. “We have a pretty good recruiting class coming. I’ll feel good about the future.”
GW, the Midwest Region’s No. 9 seed, barely got a chance to look around, to get used to PNC Arena’s playing surface, to the feel of being an NCAA tournament team again, before eighth-seeded Memphis — a program with more recent bona fides — kept the Colonials at bay to advance to the round of 32.
The Tigers (24-9) will play top-seeded Virginia.
For GW, Lonergan turned what was supposed to be a rebuilding year — before the season, the Colonials were picked to finish 10th in the Atlantic 10 — into a success. GW (24-9) finished third in the conference during the regular season and is seen as ahead of schedule on that reconstruction.
But Friday night showed that plenty of work remains. Contenders don’t miss 10 free throws and fail to finish three-point plays.
“We couldn’t quite make them pay,” Lonergan said.
Contenders also don’t struggle to rebound against a team of similar size, chasing an opponent as he scores on another easy layup. And they don’t make the kinds of mistakes that Memphis, with its NCAA tournament and big-game experience, just didn’t make Friday.
These are the kinds of things that frustrated the Colonials throughout their brief stop in Raleigh, and no doubt they’ll be the things they think about during the five-or-so-hour bus ride back to Foggy Bottom.
In time, though, here’s what will emerge as more memorable, even if this truly was an early and important stop on the way to brighter days: that GW almost came back, even amid the frustration, trimming Memphis’s lead to one after Joe McDonald made a layup with 13 seconds left.
They can maybe someday see the adjustments Lonergan made in the second half, giving his team a chance to win a game that could’ve become a blowout, taking away many of the three-pointers that pushed Memphis to a 31-26 halftime lead. The Tigers, clearly unafraid of GW’s zone defense, attempted 11 three-pointers in the first 11 minutes 36 seconds, making four of them. The Colonials made changes, though, and until Michael Dixon Jr. made a three-pointer late in the second half, Memphis attempted only two in the second stanza.
GW will remember, for now, that it came so close. The point, though, was that Lonergan’s team made it to Raleigh when, according to the sentiment before the season, it didn’t belong. But it defeated Creighton during the regular season, then Maryland, then Virginia Commonwealth.
That it kept returning fire on Friday night, even until the end, when Maurice Creek, a symbol of a battered, overachieving team, had a chance to tie the score Friday with a late three-pointer but watched as it fell short.
“Tonight just wasn’t my night,” said Creek, who returned after suffering a cut that required stitches near his eye.
Lonergan can say that, no matter how it ended, the Colonials made it there. And that they can look toward what’s ahead.
“We don’t want to be one-hit wonders,” he said.
Creek, the graduate-student transfer from Indiana whose college career was marred by injuries, already began looking toward the more longer-lasting memory of this season.
“It’s everything I asked for, from head to toe,” Creek said, his voice still low and his shoulders slumped. “Everybody picked us to be 10th in the A-10; they didn’t know what to expect from us. And when we started winning games, everybody started to notice us a little bit.
“Then we started winning bigger games and got the respect that we were supposed to already have.”