George Washington won the NIT on Thursday night, routing Valparaiso to do so.
Hollow victory, right? That’s what everybody tends to think. That’s even what the Colonials thought, after they received a cold shoulder from the NCAA committee on Selection Sunday.
But then the games came and the victories piled up, and before they knew it, they were cutting down the nets in Madison Square Garden.
So it sure didn’t seem hollow. Not as the fans cheered and the players hugged. Not as center Kevin Larsen, one of the team’s three seniors, vaulted into the stands to celebrate with Don Shopland, once an assistant at his high school, Montrose Christian in Rockland, Md. (“He’s like my father,” Larsen said.)
Not as the team posed for a photo with the trophy while the strains of “New York, New York” were piped throughout a building that has come to be known as The World’s Most Famous Arena.
And not as the players doused coach Mike Lonergan with water when he returned to the locker room following the postgame news conference.
More than anything else, it felt like a culmination, not consolation.
Those seniors – Larsen, guard/forward Patricio Garino and guard Joe McDonald – headed Lonergan’s first recruiting class in 2012. They started as soon as they set foot on campus, going 13-17 as freshmen but 24-9, 22-13 and now 28-10 the last three seasons. They reached the postseason each of those years, the NIT the last two.
Their victory total this year is a school record, and the title represents the first by GW in a postseason tournament.
Nothing hollow about any of that.
“We talked, and you’d rather win the NIT than … (go) one-and-done in the NCAA Tournament,” Larsen said. “That’s what the mindset was. We really wanted to win this.”
They pulled away in the second half to waffle Valpo, 76-60, after hammering San Diego State 65-46 in Tuesday’s semifinals. Their defense, a weakness all season, was excellent both nights, their offense as efficient as ever.
“It’s a very special feeling right now, knowing we got to play in this historic place,” Garino said. “This venue is amazing and everybody dreams of playing here and coming and winning a championship. I think that’s very special for us, our program, our community.”
Garino is from Argentina, Larsen from Denmark. Both have played internationally; Garino, in fact, will have an opportunity to earn a spot on his nation’s Olympic team this summer.
He acknowledged that representing one’s country is in a category all its own.
“But at the same time I spent my last four years playing for GW,” he said, “and my love for this university grew day by day. I think this is all my family right now. Getting to share this with them, it means the world to me and it’s going to be one of the best memories of my life.”
Larsen scored 18 points Thursday. Garino had 14 and McDonald 13. Junior forward Tyler Cavanaugh, named the tournament’s most outstanding player, finished with 12. The three seniors joined him on the all-tournament team, as did Crusaders forward Alec Peters.
“NCAAs is always the goal,” Cavanaugh said, “but we proved this year that you can make a lot of memories in this great tournament.”
Again, it didn’t start out that way. Not four years ago, and not two weeks ago.
“I think when I first got here, it was kind of in the rebuilding stages,” McDonald said, reflecting on his freshman year.
Yes, kind of. The Colonials had gone 10-21 in ’11-12, Lonergan’s first season after coming over from Vermont.
“Honestly,” McDonald said, “we just wanted to change the culture and get back to winning basketball at GW.”
They did that, but this year they frittered away a 16-point lead in losing an Atlantic 10 quarterfinal to Saint Joseph’s, and it was time to regroup once more.
“I told them instead of Senior Night, I wanted it to be Senior Month,” Lonergan said.
They beat Hofstra 82-80 in the first round of the NIT, on a last-second basket by backup guard Alex Mitola, a graduate transfer from Dartmouth. After that, Cavanaugh said, “I think we were re-energized, refocused, and we just knew we had a mission to accomplish.”
Victories over Monmouth and Florida followed, and they played two of their best games in MSG – certainly their two best defensive games, Larsen said.
The Colonials, who had limited San Diego State to 28.8-percent shooting in the semis (lowest by a GW opponent in two years), held the Crusaders to 35.3-percent accuracy while outscoring them 44-29 in the second half.
What had been a one-point game at intermission turned into a runaway. And what might have once seemed like consolation became a culmination.
Above: George Washington celebrates its victory over Valparaiso in the NIT Championship game at Madison Square Garden. (Courtesy Jeff Zelevansky/Getty Images)