George Washington men’s basketball Coach Mike Lonergan earlier this week called Saturday’s game against 14th-ranked Butler a measuring stick for his program.

The Colonials learned in a 59-56 loss before a sellout crowd of 4,488 at Smith Center just how far they’ve come in the rebuilding process, erasing nearly all of a 17-point deficit in the second half and turning what appeared headed for a lopsided result into a frenzied finish.

With his team down by the final margin with four seconds to play, George Washington point guard Joe McDonald secured an inbounds pass from senior guard Lasan Kromah and dribbled on the left side of the court, steps beyond the three-point line. But the freshman was unable to release a shot before time expired, allowing the Bulldogs to escape with a third straight win and remain in first place in the Atlantic 10.

“There’s definitely some nerves, no matter what we tried, with our young guys,” Lonergan said of the game, which was the first Smith Center sellout since 2006 and featured the highest-ranked opponent in Foggy Bottom since 2000. “We’re still not consistent, and that’s not an easy thing to coach. But we’re coming a long ways. Like I said, I’m really proud of our team. I have no problem saying that.”

The Colonials (11-11, 5-4 Atlantic 10) lost their fifth game by four points or fewer in part because they shot 28 percent, the team’s second lowest this season, missed 11 of 12 three-point attempts and made just 68 percent of their free throws (15 for 22) in the second half. Eight of George Washington’s 13 turnovers came in the second half as well.

Senior forward Isaiah Armwood led George Washington with 14 points and 11 rebounds and added two assists and two steals. McDonald scored 10 points but missed 7 of 10 shots and had four turnovers to match a game high, and Kromah added 10 points to go along with five rebounds and a team-high three steals.

Rotnei Clarke led Butler (20-4, 7-2) with 14 points.

“This team I thought was playing as well as anyone around,” Butler Coach Brad Stevens said of the Colonials, who entered having won four of five. “Their aggressiveness and assertiveness will get them a lot of wins. They’re a good team.”

Trailing 48-31 with 12 minutes 2 seconds left, George Washington got the margin below double figures after a 15-7 run that concluded with Kromah’s layup. Butler got the lead back to 10, but the Colonials countered by scoring six of the next seven points to pull within 57-52 with 1:34 to play.

GW freshman guard Patricio Garino missed an open layup before Roosevelt Jones missed two free throws for Butler, which shot 38 percent, committed 19 turnovers, its second most this season, and in the second half shot 58 percent (11 for 19) from the foul line. Kromah soon thereafter scored on a putback, and McDonald’s two free throws with 44 seconds to play got the Colonials to 57-56.

After Kellen Dunham’s two foul shots completed the scoring, McDonald missed a three-pointer with 14 seconds to go, and Butler’s Kameron Woods secured the rebound. The Bulldogs called a timeout, but Jones turned over the ball before George Washington’s Nemanja Mikic missed a three-pointer and teammate Dwayne Smith collected the rebound.

The Bulldogs swarmed Smith, compelling officials to rule a jump ball. The possession arrow pointed to George Washington, setting up the frantic closing moments in which McDonald appeared to draw contact coming off a screen without a foul being called.

“It just goes back to the little things earlier in the game we think about,” McDonald said of the loss. “For instance turnovers, missed free throws, things like that. If we had capitalized on that, maybe it would have been a different outcome.”