NEW YORK — When seniors Joe McDonald, Patricio Garino and Kevin Larsen began playing for George Washington, the men’s basketball program was in the nascent stages of a rebuild under Coach Mike Lonergan. One season later, the Colonials were back in the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2007 and aspiring to be regular participants in the sport’s showcase event.
GW fell short of the field of 68 this year, but players shook off that initial disappointment to refocus on getting to Madison Square Garden for the National Invitation Tournament’s final four. At the very least, the seniors would have a bit longer together to enjoy the conclusion of their college careers.
So it was fitting McDonald, Garino and Larsen were among the final members of the team to cut down the nets following a 76-60 win over top-seeded Valparaiso in which that group combined to score 45 points. Larsen led the way with 18 points and five rebounds, and Garino added 14 points and three rebounds in GW’s fifth straight win.
“There’s honestly no words,” McDonald said. “I’m so happy for our team, our players, our program, for our seniors especially in this whole long ride. We’ve been through a lot through the four years, and to go out winning at home [in the NIT quarterfinals] and winning this NIT championship, they’re two of the best wins I’ve had these four years.”
McDonald withstood a twisted ankle to finish with 13 points, eight rebounds and four assists. The Landon graduate made 5 of 6 free throws as part of the Colonials’ 18-for-22 showing at the line in the second half. GW (28-10) also limited the Crusaders to 39 percent shooting, including just 8 for 28 on three-pointers, in a game it trailed for just 48 seconds.
Tyler Cavanaugh had 12 points and six rebounds on his way to being selected as the tournament’s most outstanding player. The junior transfer from Wake Forest completed the season by scoring in double figures in all 38 of the Colonials’ games.
Ahead by six early in the second half, GW then scored six in a row, capped by reserve junior guard Matt Hart’s three-pointer from well beyond NBA range for a 47-35 advantage with 12 minutes 26 seconds to play. At that point, Lonergan was leaning heavily on his bench with a lineup that included Hart and fellow backups Paul Jorgensen, sophomore forward Anthony Swan and freshman guard Jordan Roland.
Consecutive field goals by senior guard E. Victor Nickerson and senior center Vashil Fernandez drew the Crusaders (30-7) to 54-44 with 7:11 remaining, but GW never allowed the margin to shrink further.
“It’s kind of surreal right now,” Larsen said. “I don’t really know what to think. Just a bunch of emotions going back to freshman year when things weren’t going that well, and now to go out as champions showed a growth and focus and the trust we have in Coach Lonergan and his staff to go out and stay the course.”
The Colonials began the second half with a 7-2 run featuring an open three-pointer by Garino in transition. Crusaders Coach Bryce Drew called time out with 17:49 left in regulation, but GW continued to apply pressure defensively and had multiple opportunities to grow the lead. Missed layups on consecutive possessions, however, kept the margin manageable for Valparaiso.
“I’m really happy for those guys because they helped get our program, which is a great program with tradition, they helped put us back on the map,” Lonergan said. “But we’re not there yet. I want to get to the NCAAs and make a run there, but this is a great stepping stone.”
The first momentum swing of the game went to GW, which used a 10-2 burst to open a 21-12 lead. McDonald’s jumper on a pass from Cavanaugh got it going, and Garino followed with a three-point play. Larsen (Montrose Christian) swished a jumper, and graduate transfer Alex Mitola, one of six Colonials on the roster with 1,000 career points, made a three-pointer before Valparaiso called timeout.
The Crusaders came storming back minutes later when senior guard Keith Carter made a three-pointer and a driving layup and junior forward Alec Peters sank a three-pointer. Lonergan called timeout with 5:21 left until intermission, but Valparaiso reeled off five consecutive points for its first lead, 29-27, since scoring the game’s opening basket.
GW went into the locker room ahead, 32-31, thanks to a three-pointer and jumper from Cavanaugh.
“This is clearly the best way to finish our careers at GW,” Garino said. “Leaving with a championship is something unthinkable. We’re very thankful for it.”