Colonials Hit the Jackpot

George Washington's players and fans celebrate after the Colonials' Atlantic-10 championship. (Mel Evans - AP)
By Marc Carig
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, March 11, 2007

ATLANTIC CITY, March 10 -- It was supposed to be a year of rebuilding in Foggy Bottom, at least that's the line that George Washington Coach Karl Hobbs has used all season. When the Colonials entered a crucial midseason stretch with 14 victories, the coach did his best to temper expectations. When the overachieving Colonials came out of that run with four straight losses, the coach appeared justified in his warnings.

But the Colonials had learned something during those struggles: They found an identity.

The culmination of that grueling process went on full display at Boardwalk Hall on Saturday night, when the Colonials won a physical game with Rhode Island, 78-69, to win the Atlantic 10 tournament and clinch a third consecutive trip to the NCAA tournament, a first for the program.

"We just kept getting better as the season went on," said Hobbs, who led the Colonials to their second conference tournament title in three years. "The four-game losing streak was the difference in our season. It forced us to look at ourselves. Once we accepted the fact that we weren't doing certain things well, we were able to change."

When the final buzzer went off, fans stormed the court at Boardwalk Hall, forward Dokun Akingbade cradled the championship trophy and Hobbs paced the floor for a minute before turning to one of his assistants: "We won this," he whispered. "Wow."

"Everyone doubted us, said that we weren't going to win," said senior point guard Carl Elliott, the Atlantic 10 tournament trophy sitting inches from his face.

The Colonials (23-8), who won their eighth straight since the skid, withstood a career-best 29-point performance by Rams all-conference forward Will Daniels to continue their charmed run. Thanks to upsets earlier in the tournament, the third-seeded Colonials managed to dodge top-seeded Xavier and second-seeded Massachusetts, leaving only the fourth-seeded Rams (19-14) on Saturday.

The burden of playing for the third time in three nights started to show late in the first half. From there, the contest became a test of the kind of toughness that the Colonials lacked even a month ago.

GW led by 11 in the second half, but Rhode Island cut the advantage to four points four times.

In each instance, the Colonials mustered enough to extend the lead again. The final push came with just over two minutes left, when Akingbade scored inside to push the lead to six. Maureece Rice then hit two free throws to make the lead eight. With Rhode Island forced to foul the rest of the way, the Colonials made eight of their final 10 free throws.

Elliott, who led the Colonials with 17 points, will become the first player in GW history to play in three NCAA tournaments. Rice, named the tournament's most outstanding player, scored 12.

But the game's best performance came from Akingbade, who scored 15 points and grabbed nine rebounds in perhaps the greatest performance of his career.

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