(Jason Schott / NY Sports Day)
The George Washington Colonials put together a big second half to win the NIT, 76-60, over the Valparaiso Crusaders on Thursday night at Madison Square Garden.
George Washington, of the Atlantic 10 conference, which played its conference tournament at Barclays Center, went 28-10 this season, and this is the first postseason title in the school’s history.
They beat San Diego State 65-46 on Tuesday in the semifinals to reach the championship game.
The Colonials dominated Valparaiso in the first half, but only held a one-point lead, 32-31, at the half.
George Washington opened up the second half on a 15-4 run, capped by a Matt Hart three that made it 47-35 with 12:26 left. They built the lead up to 15 points, 59-44, on Joe McDonald free throws with 5:38 left, and maintained that lead the rest of the way.
GW was led by Kevin Larsen, who had 18 points on 5-9 from the field, 2-3 on three-pointers, five rebounds, and two assists. Patricio Garino had 14 points (4-9 FG, 2-4 on threes), with three rebounds and an assist. Joe McDonald had 13 points (4-6 FG), eight rebounds, and four assists. Tyler Cavanaugh had 12 points, six rebounds, and three assists.
George Washington Head Coach Mike Lonergan said, “We couldn’t be happier to win this NIT Championship. Extremely happy, especially for our, I hate to say always the seniors. This class has been great. But Tyler, all our guys, even our subs tonight, had great minutes.
“These guys, I wanted to leave a legacy. We didn’t make the NCAAs and we are all heartbroken and it’s hard to bounce back but they bounce back. Every team we played including Hofstra was tough, and we got better each game. We played our best basketball end of March. I told them I wanted, instead of senior night, I wanted it to be senior month. And that’s what it was. And Tyler stepped up his game even more, double figures every game this year. Happy for them. Happy to be here. Appreciate the committee selecting us, and that’s it.”
George Washington guard Joe McDonald said of the program that he arrived into, what his goals were then and how close you feel like he came to meeting them with a 28-win season and an NIT title, “I think when I first got here, it was kind of in the rebuilding stages. I knew that. And we had a strong class coming with these two guys here next to me. Honestly we just wanted to change the culture and get back to winning basketball at GW.
“I think after that first — our freshman year was kind of rough, but each year I think we learned something new and we kept growing and we got better each year and we accomplished new things every year. Made new memories every year that we’re very proud of.
“To leave the NIT Championship winners is so special. Play like 37, 38 games and there’s not a lot of teams that can have their final game for a championship, and we’re just as proud that it’s in this stage and we’re happy that it ended this way for us,” said McDonald.
GW forward Tyler Cavanaugh said of the motivation that they are going to next year to attempt to get to the NCAA Tournament, “Yeah, I mean, obviously it’s going to be a completely different team, losing these three guys. It’s been a blessing to play with them. I mean, it’s just been great.
“But we’ve got good players who will step up and I’m not really worried about that now. But I’m excited. NCAAs is always the goal but we proved this year that you can make a lot of memories in this great tournament. So I’m just excited to celebrate with these guys.”
Lonergan said of how big the win is for the GW program, “It’s huge for us, it really is. I won’t say it was a five-year plan, nobody is more patient — less patient than me, except maybe my dad. My kids say, he can’t be a doctor because he had no patience. Bad joke but it’s true.
“So NCAA, a lot of people lose NIT and say, oh, they didn’t want to be — I’ve never believed that. We’re an up-and-coming program that has great history. We were down. We had a change of culture when we got here five years ago, guys like Isaiah Armwood and John Kopriva, want to mention them, helped us change.
“And then this first recruiting class. Their first year, might have been 13-17, but we lost one-possession games to some of the best teams in the country and I knew we would be good after that. We stuck with them and they believed in what I was selling. To add Tyler Cavanaugh, who I recruited as hard as anybody I ever recruited, and we were first Division I offer when I was at Vermont, and I got the GW job, got back in, he ended up going to Wake Forest. Where our program was, I couldn’t really blame him.
“But didn’t burn any bridges. I had a good relationship with his players, his dad was a great player at Hamilton College. For him, I sold him on, you could be the final piece of taking this team, which I thought this team could go to the Sweet 16 if we could make the tournament. The hardest thing was to get in, nobody talks about us, I thought we were a bubble team. We beat St. Joe’s; I thought we should have went.
“But the Atlantic 10 is a great league. It doesn’t get enough respect, it really doesn’t. It has a great commissioner and great teams, and hopefully this will help the Atlantic 10 as much as GW.
“So this is a big deal for our university, our players and our program, and I’m proud of these guys that helped put our program back on the map but we are not where we want to be yet. We want to keep this thing growing,” said Lonergan.