RICHMOND — Before he even walked into Siegel Center on Wednesday night, Mike Lonergan knew the deck was stacked against him and his George Washington basketball team.
Visiting teams almost never beat VCU inside one of college basketball’s best venues. Visiting teams playing without a key ballhandler and second-leading scorer win against the Rams even less often. And when that team — GW — has already beaten Shaka Smart’s team once, there’s no way he isn’t going to have his players ready to create “havoc,” as his team’s style of play has been dubbed.
“You don’t often get a chance for payback in this league because you don’t play that many teams twice,” said VCU guard Briante Weber, who is his team’s spiritual and emotional leader. “We knew this was one of those chances and we didn’t want to let it get away.”
They didn’t. After the Colonials led 8-4 early, VCU went on a 35-10 run that led to a 45-28 halftime lead. Few buildings in college basketball rock like Siegel Center, which was sold out for the 48th straight time on Wednesday even in the midst of a snowstorm. Loud as it was, as intimidating as VCU’s “havoc” can be, GW didn’t fold, somehow finding a way to cut the margin to 59-54 before the Rams’ shooting and their hyperactive defense finally wore down Lonergan’s team.
“I give Mike and his staff a lot of credit,” Smart said after the game. “They may have improved as much from last season to this season as any team in the country. Adding [guard Maurice] Creek helped because they needed a shooter, but a lot of it is just guys getting better. They beat us once, and we had to work to win tonight. There’s no question they’re an NCAA tournament team.”
GW should be an NCAA tournament team. It is 19-6, 7-4 in the Atlantic 10 after Saturday’s 67-61 home loss to Massachusetts. It has beaten Creighton — which would be a top four-seed right now — Maryland and VCU. It is in fifth place in the Atlantic 10, a league that deserves at least five tournament bids. It has been seven years since the Colonials made the NCAA tournament. An end to that streak would be a big deal for Lonergan in his third season in Foggy Bottom.
But his team is banged up. Second-leading scorer Kethan Savage, who played a key role in dealing with VCU’s pressure the first time the teams played, has been out four weeks with a fractured foot and won’t be back until March. Point guard Joe McDonald, who may be as important as any player on the team, is playing on a tender hip.
With critical games at Richmond and No. 12 Saint Louis coming up, McDonald’s health is vital because he has no real backup. Lonergan tried freshman Miguel Cartagena in McDonald’s place after McDonald picked up a second foul early on Wednesday, but Cartagena looked like a deer with an 18-wheeler bearing down on him: two possessions, two turnovers. So Patricio Garino, come on down and try to play the point!
Garino “is a three-man who is all right hand,” Lonergan said “But he was our best bet at that point.”
There are no moral victories in college basketball, especially in February when you lose 92-75, but GW had reason to feel optimistic after Wednesday’s loss. Smart played 12 guys in the first half against a team that had five starters play at least 30 minutes and got 31 minutes for the entire night from its bench. The Colonials shot 73 percent in the second half, and all that did was allow them to keep pace with the Rams, who were 13 of 25 beyond the three-point line.
The real difference in the game was VCU’s defense, which does more than just produce turnovers. It produces steals — 14 on Wednesday, seven by Weber — and huge surges of adrenaline, especially when the Rams are at home, where they have won 18 straight games dating from last season.
“The way we play definitely keeps our crowd in the game,” Smart said. “Every basketball game has moments of adversity. When you’re on the road, the crowd can add to the adversity. When you’re at home, your crowd — you hope — helps you get through the adversity. Our crowd does that.”
Lonergan said there was some amazement at the sight of a sellout crowd (7,741) on a night when no one should have been out, but noted his team also was undefeated at home at that point.
GW’s Smith Center has become a hot place to be this season, but VCU is close to unique. The school’s pep band — “the Peppas” — is so good that when longtime band leader Ryan Kopacsi announced he was “stepping away” because of a contract dispute last summer, the hue and cry on campus was so loud that VCU gave him what he was asking for, probably making Kopacsi the first pep-band leader to have his contract renewal announced in a news release.
He’s worth it.
It’s not just the band, it’s also the students, who often sing — to their own lyrics — along with the band. When the band plays “400 degrees” and the students sing “It is havoc that you fear!” it feels as if the roof will come off the building.
It helps that the team has been consistently good for years, even more so since Smart arrived in 2009. He took the Rams to the Final Four in 2011 and is all but certain to take them to their fourth straight NCAA tournament appearance this year. To call Smart one of the best young coaches in the country — he won’t be 37 until April — misses the point. He’s one of the best coaches in the country, period.
Which is why it wasn’t surprising that his team bounced back from a disappointing loss at Saint Joseph’s last weekend to play passionately and extremely well against the Colonials, upping their record to 20-5 before Saturday’s 64-62 loss at Saint Louis.
Lonergan and GW haven’t been to the places where VCU has been in recent years. But they’re getting closer and Lonergan knew there was no shame in Wednesday’s loss, even though he was frustrated enough to get tossed from the game in the final minute.
“That was embarrassing,” he said. “First time I’ve been thrown out since I was coaching Division III. I wasn’t even mad at the refs, they did a good job tonight. I’m just a bad loser.”
He leaned against a wall: “I knew this one would be tough. We have to get the one against U-Mass. on Saturday.”
The road in February — especially when it leads through Siegel Center — is very difficult. It took GW’s bus more than four hours to make the 100- mile trip back to campus in the snow. It took Lonergan another 70 minutes to drive from campus to his home in Bowie — 17 miles. He walked in his front door just before 4 a.m.
He didn’t mind the exhaustion. As long as his team was fresh and ready to go by Saturday afternoon. Selection Sunday is four weeks away. Even with the U-Mass loss, there is no reason for Lonergan to panic . . . yet.
For more by John Feinstein, visit washingtonpost.com/feinstein.