Two years ago on the recruiting trail, new George Washington Coach Mike Lonergan sold a collection of prospects a dream. He talked about rebuilding a program in Foggy Bottom with players who grew up in the Washington area, performing for standing-room-only crowds at Smith Center in games with national relevance.
On Tuesday night, Lonergan’s collection of talented sophomores saw that promise realized for the first time and didn’t disappoint.
In its most impressive home win to date, George Washington held off Atlantic 10 preseason favorite Virginia Commonwealth for an exciting 76-66 victory in front of a boisterous sellout crowd of 4,871 at Smith Center.
The Colonials are 9-0 at home, with all but one decided by double digits. But it was the manner in which they surged to this latest triumph, with an answer every time the Rams seemed to mount a second-half charge, that could eventually propel George Washington (14-3, 2-1 Atlantic 10) to even greater heights come Selection Sunday.
With leading scorer Maurice Creek limited to just four points to go with seven turnovers, the Colonials got a career-high 25 points off the bench from sophomore Patricio Garino, including 18 after halftime. Sophomore Kevin Larsen (Montrose Christian) added 22 points on 9-of-11 shooting, and tied his previous career high with 17 points in the first half.
“It was one of the most incredible things,” Larsen said. “I’ve never been in a gym that packed and that loud.”
But the program’s first win in four tries against VCU didn’t come without some nervous moments for Lonergan. George Washington committed 21 turnovers, at times succumbing to VCU’s vaunted “Havoc” pressure defense. The Rams turned those miscues into 24 points.
Despite teetering at times, GW never backed down.
With VCU (13-4, 1-1) up by five, Larsen took over. He scored the next six points to ignite a 14-4 run to close the first half, a sequence that produced a thunderous, one-handed jam by sophomore Kethan Savage. Creek hit his lone field goal of the game to cap the surge just before the buzzer to give George Washington a 36-29 lead at halftime.
“I wanted to get revenge from last year,” said Larsen, referencing the 24 points and 10 rebounds that VCU forward Juvonte Reddic accumulated when VCU beat George Washington, 84-57, last February. “I was kind of looking forward to this matchup. It worked out well for me.”
When VCU again cut the lead to three early in the second half, senior Isaiah Armwood (11 points, 14 rebounds) came right back with four consecutive points. When the Rams whittled the deficit to four with six minutes remaining in regulation, the Colonials proceeded to score 15 of the game’s next 22 points to seal the victory. Garino had eight points in the stretch.
As a team, George Washington shot 56.3 percent from the field and outrebounded VCU, 45-29. Guard Rob Brandenberg had a team-high 17 points for VCU and forward Treveon Graham (St. Mary’s Ryken) chipped in 12, but Coach Shaka Smart’s team hit only 36.8 percent of its shots and three of its final 20 attempts from three-point range.
“They’ve really made progress,” Smart said after George Washington snapped his team’s five-game win streak. “They’re obviously gonna be a team to be dealt with in the A-10.”
Earning that sort of respect has been paramount to Lonergan, but Tuesday was also about a promise made a couple years ago.
So as the final seconds ticked away, Garino, Larsen and sophomore Joe McDonald stood near midcourt while a mixture of rowdy students and suit-and-tie Washington elite gave them a standing ovation before a free throw. A moment later, Garino stole the ensuing rebound for a put-back dunk.
On a night when its coach’s dream was finally realized, George Washington simply wouldn’t let up.
“This is why I came to GW,” Lonergan said. “This is a hard city to draw . . . and tonight, to pack the place, that’s how we really want it to be every game. It makes it a lot easier to win when you get those crowds.”