Some five months ago, when Mike Lonergan gathered his George Washington team for a season laced with high expectations, the prevailing thought around Foggy Bottom was on the Atlantic 10 title and NCAA tournament.
Disappointment on both fronts, though, forced the Colonials to come to terms with a secondary pursuit: the National Invitation Tournament. And while the prize lacks the luster of the grand event, they are making the most of it.
In the bedlam of Smith Center on Wednesday, they overcame faulty free throw shooting in the second half and defeated Florida, 82-77, to advance to the NIT semifinals for the first time.
The Colonials (26-10) will play San Diego State on Tuesday at Madison Square Garden. Valparaiso and Brigham Young will meet in the other game. The championship game is next Thursday.
“We wanted to go to the NCAA tournament. It didn’t happen, so the only thing we could do was try to get to New York,” Lonergan said. “Now that we’re there, hopefully we will play loose. Hopefully we will enjoy it and keep winning.”
The Colonials will march on because junior forward Tyler Cavanaugh scored 18 of his 23 points after intermission, including a three-pointer and four free throws in the last minute to vanquish the Gators (21-15) before 3,399.
They will continue because Kevin Larsen scored 14 of his 19 points in the second half and grabbed 13 rebounds in a game featuring 19 lead changes and 14 ties.
“We were definitely disappointed [failing to qualify for the NCAA tournament], but we blew some opportunities,” said Cavanaugh, who has averaged 21.3 points in three NIT games. “So we regrouped as a team, and this is a great opportunity. . . . We’ve been reenergized, and now we have a chance to win a championship.”
The last tie came with 2 minutes 20 seconds left. Cavanaugh’s free throw put the Colonials ahead to stay, and after a Florida miss and a GW timeout, Lonergan looked to the Wake Forest transfer to pad the lead with a basket or assist.
“I thought they would really stay on him because he has been shooting so well,” Lonergan said. “But they weren’t there, so he made the right decision. He lined it up. That’s definitely the guy I want shooting from that spot.”
The three-pointer with 52 seconds left was Cavanaugh’s fourth in five attempts and stretched the lead to 77-73. GW then began making free throws, creating enough of a buffer that the Gators never had a chance to tie or take the lead again.
Defensively suspect much of the season, the Colonials allowed two field goals in the last five minutes and held Florida to 43 percent shooting overall and 7 of 24 three-pointers.
KeVaughn Allen scored 22 points for the Gators but didn’t make a field goal in the last eight minutes.
And as reward for their efforts, the Colonials will head to New York with an opportunity to tie the program record for victories in a season (27) and a second chance at postseason glory for a trio of seniors (Larsen, Patricio Garino and Joe McDonald) who averaged 24 victories over the last three years.
Said Lonergan: “I’m excited and I’m happy for our seniors especially because they took it hard we didn’t make the tournament. . . . It’s going to be fun.”