Thursday, March 31, 2016

George Washington wins first-ever postseason championship, capturing NIT title

Hoisted up by Patricio Garino (left) and Tyler Cavanaugh, (right) Mike Lonergan cuts down championship net after George Washington wins NIT with commanding 76-60 win over Valparaiso. (Photo courtesy of Jaden Daly)

NEW YORK -- Just about the only thing that went wrong for George Washington Thursday night came during their postgame celebration, when Madison Square Garden security would not let the Colonials take a ladder across the court to cut down the other net that remained intact following the first symbolic takedown.

Fittingly, it was GW's two biggest contributors who rose to the occasion once more, as Patricio Garino and Tyler Cavanaugh, who led the charge in the Colonials' 76-60 victory over Valparaiso, hoisted head coach Mike Lonergan up to grab the last souvenir in the program's first-ever National Invitation Tournament championship victory.

"We couldn't be happier to win this NIT championship," proclaimed a beaming Lonergan, who urged his players to leave a positive imprint on their careers after an Atlantic 10 tournament loss to eventual conference champion Saint Joseph's kept GW (28-10) out of the NCAA Tournament field. "These guys wanted to leave a legacy. I told them instead of senior night, I wanted it to be 'senior month,' and it was."

The Colonials did just that, making a statement in each of their five NIT contests, from surviving Hofstra on Alex Mitola's go-ahead shot in the final seconds, to a convincing win over Monmouth and gritty home victory against Florida, and concluding with systematic and methodical takedowns of San Diego State and Valparaiso this week at the Garden. GW's vaunted 1-3-1 zone, which yielded a microscopic 29 percent opposing field goal percentage on Tuesday, was just as effective on this night, limiting the Crusaders (30-7) to just eight three-point field goals and a 35 percent second-half clip whose figure was enhanced by a late rally that ultimately proved inconsequential.

"Our zone was really good this weekend," said Cavanaugh, whose 32 points and 17 rebounds in GW's last two games earned him NIT Most Outstanding Player honors. "We played two very good teams and we beat them pretty handily, and that's just a testament to us as a team and our coaches putting us in the right position to win."

"The NCAA is always the goal," Cavanaugh further opined, "but we proved this year that you can make a lot of memories in this great tournament."

Following a tightly contested first half that George Washington led by just one point, holding a 32-31 edge at the intermission, the Colonials went to work on both ends of the basketball in the second half. A 15-4 run that saw the defense allow just two field goals in the first seven-plus minutes ballooned the lead into double digits, a deficit from which Valparaiso would never recover. The Crusaders would venture no closer than 10 points the rest of the way, and a 9-2 spurt by GW quickly extinguished any hope of a rally.

Four Colonials ended the night in double figures, with Kevin Larsen's 18 points leading all scorers. For Valpo, Alec Peters recorded a double-double with 15 points and 10 rebounds, and was also the only non-GW player named to the All-Tournament Team. George Washington played yet another crisp game from a ball handling perspective, committing just eight turnovers on a night where the sting of missing out on the "Big Dance" gave way to the jubilation of winning a championship.

"To leave the NIT championship winners is so special," said point guard Joe McDonald, who also garnered All-Tournament Team recognition. "We play 37-38 games, and there's not a lot of teams that can have their final game for a championship. We're just as proud that it's on this stage, and we're happy that it ended this way for us."

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