Years from now, perhaps the best compliment one will be able to give one of the most talented senior classes in the history of George Washington basketball is that not only did they go out as champions, but they also went out playing their very best.
After a two-point escape against Hofstra in their National Invitation Tournament opener, there was no stopping the Colonials the rest of the way on their postseason run. Not even a top-seeded Valparaiso could get in the way as GW won the 79th annual NIT 76-60 Thursday night for its first postseason tournament championship in school history.
The fourth-seeded Colonials broke open a one-point game at halftime with a mix of hot shooting and active defense. George Washington hit 55% from the field in the second half while limiting Valpo to 35.3% shooting in the half and just 39% marksmanship for the game. Whether it was continuously knocking down timely shots or disrupting with their 1-3-1 zone defense, GW clearly broke the spirits of the Crusaders, who themselves had put together an impressive run but fell short of their first NIT title.
George Washington once again was led by four-year seniors Patricio Garino, Kevin Larsen and Joe McDonald. The trio combined for 45 of the Colonials’ 74 points (including a game-high 18 from Larsen) and also hit 15 of 17 free throws as GW was a pristine 22 of 26 from the stripe. Right there with the 1993 class of Bill Brigham, Sonni Holland, Adama Kah and Dirkk Surles, these three-as well as graduate transfer senior Alex Mitola-will go down as one of the most decorated senior classes in school history.
GW showed again on Thursday what was evident in the regular season in wins over teams like Virginia, Seton Hall and VCU and in the NIT against Hofstra, Monmouth, Florida and San Diego State: that it was a really good team, one that would’ve been capable of winning a game, maybe even two in the NCAA Tournament. The Colonials were a few clumsy losses (at DePaul and Saint Louis, Richmond at home) from being in the NCAAs, but they made the very most of their opportunity in the NIT and delivered another statement for the Atlantic 10, that it was a better conference than the NCAA selection committee gave it credit for this season.
For Valparaiso, it was a frustrating end to a remarkable year. The Crusaders did not have their A game Thursday, and an injury to senior point guard Keith Carter late in the first half seemed to cast a pall over the team after halftime. Carter returned in the second half but was not the same, and Valpo never got on track on offense (four points in the first eight minutes) or defense in the second half. And when GW walk-on Matt Hart hit a 30-footer with 10 minutes left and little-used freshman Jordan Roland nailed his second three-pointer of the season on the next possession, very clearly this was George Washington’s night.
It was that way, though, because the Colonials made it so through their force. GW put on a near-clinic on both ends, providing a fitting and deserving conclusion for the careers of three players who helped the school to so much success over four years .
- Oklahoma coach Lon Kruger is going to have a couple openings on his coaching staff to fill when the Sooners’ Final Four is over. A pair of his current assistant coaches will be getting their first head coaching jobs according to reports, as Lew Hill will take over at Texas-Rio Grande Valley (formerly Texas-Pan American) and Steve Henson will be named the coach at Texas-San Antonio. Hill is a former all-Missouri Valley Conference player at Wichita State who has been as assistant with Kruger for 12 years, dating back to their time together at UNLV. He will take over at the school that was created after a merger that included the school that was Kruger’s first head coaching stop (Pan American). Henson played for Kruger at Kansas State from 1986-90 and was a member of teams that advanced to four consecutive NCAA Tournaments before he embarked on an NBA career that lasted six seasons.
- Michigan State senior Denzel Valentine was named the Associated Press Player of the Year on Thursday, a rather surprising choice as many expected the award to go to Oklahoma’s Buddy Hield. Valentine is a worthy recipient and was the best all-around player in the country, but we’re a little surprised he won given that he missed more than a couple games this season due to injury. As close as they were, one would think that should’ve been the tiebreaker. Also, Kansas coach Bill Self was named the AP’s national Coach of the Year, edging Xavier’s Chris Mack and Oregon coach Dana Altman for the honor.
- The NCAA confirmed reports that leaked out on Friday that South Carolina mistakenly was notified by a text message on Selection Sunday that it would be invited to the NCAA Tournament. The text was accidentally sent to the wrong USC-South Carolina instead of Southern California-as the organization was using a new app this year that wound up backfiring. Ah, technology.
- It’s the third and final game of the College Basketball Invitational championship series. Morehead State is again on the road, playing at Nevada (9 p.m. EDT, ESPNU). The teams have split the first two games, with the Eagles winning the at home and the Wolf Pack taking the second one Wednesday in Reno. Both games have been close to the final minutes as one would hope for. While we’re still partial to the single-elimination format, there’s no question this has been a terrific mini-series, and the winner will have earned it.
Have a great weekend and enjoy the Final Four.