George Washington's NIT title hopes rest on defense

George Washington, in the NIT championship game for the first time in school history, appears to be peaking at the right time.

Wait, scratch that.

Had the Colonials peaked at the real right time — a little over two weeks ago, in the Atlantic 10 Tournament — they wouldn’t even be in Madison Square Garden on Thursday night, facing Valparaiso (30-6) for the crown that everyone gratefully accepts but doesn’t really want. Not deep down.

They would almost certainly be home, after an NCAA run of indeterminate length.

But this will have to do. And certainly GW (27-10) appears to be making the most of it. The Colonials dismantled San Diego State 65-46 in Tuesday’s semifinals, a game in which it was hard to tell where they were better — offense or defense.

The box score indicated the latter, one’s eyeballs the former.

That is some consolation, at least, after a conference-tournament run that ended with a quarterfinal loss to Saint Joseph’s, a game the Colonials led by as many as 16.

“I was heartbroken we didn’t make the Big Dance,” coach Mike Lonergan said, adding that he should shoulder the blame.

At the same time he noted that the team had “a lot of weaknesses.”

One in particular.

“The thing that kept us from making the NCAA Tournament,” he said, “was really our defense. I could never get it up to par.”

But GW, playing a 1-3-1 zone, held the Aztecs to 28.8% shooting (including 3 for 22 on 3-pointers). It was the fewest points, lowest field-goal percentage and fewest triples by a Colonials opponent all season. Also the second-lowest 3-point percentage (.136).

Those numbers are undeniably impressive; same for the fact that SDSU scored its third-fewest points of the season, and its fewest in the last 29 games.

Still, it seems fair to wonder about the Aztecs’ potency. They averaged over 81 points in winning their first three NIT games, but ended the season 268th among the nation’s 346 Division I teams in scoring (68.6), 263rd in field-goal percentage (.421) and 278th in 3-point percentage (.323).

Mull that, then, while considering how impressive the Colonials were at the other end of the floor. Again, the stat sheet only hints at their proficiency. Forward Tyler Cavanaugh, a Syracuse, N.Y., native playing his first collegiate game in his home state, collected 20 points and 11 rebounds, his third double-double in four NIT outings.

Forward Patricio Garino was, however, the only other one in double figures, with 13 points, and GW shot a so-so 42.6% from the floor.

San Diego State coach Steve Fisher was nonetheless impressed.

“They sliced and diced us at our defensive end,” he said.

George Washington, which never trailed, committed a season-low six turnovers against the Aztecs, who rely heavily on fullcourt pressure. And after SDSU closed the deficit to 19-16 late in the first half, the Colonials unfurled some of their prettiest basketball of the night over the next 13:13, scoring on 14 of 19 possessions to extend their lead to 48-28 with 14:25 left in the game.

Time and again Lonergan stood in front of his bench and windmilled his arms like a Manhattan traffic cop to indicate the playcall. And time and again his team negotiated the congestion created by a defense that had been holding its opponents to the nation’s lowest field-goal percentage. (Still does, in fact — .383.)

In the span of five trips early in the second half guard Yuta Watanabe curled off a screen at the top of the circle, took a pass from Garino and buried a 3-pointer. Then the 6-9 Cavanaugh stuck an elbow jumper, dribbled through the press to set up Garino for a layup and accepted a feed from center Kevin Larsen on the left block before scoring. And finally guard Joe McDonald drove the lane for the layup that put GW up 20.

“The first four minutes of the second half are huge,” Cavanaugh said. “That’s when you knock a team out, like we did tonight.”

They’re good at the offensive end because they can think on their feet. Three Colonials – Cavanaugh, Garino and backup guard Alex Mitola, a graduate transfer from Dartmouth — were Atlantic 10 All-Academic choices. And it helps that their big men are so versatile; Cavanaugh and Larsen appear quite comfortable handling the ball out on the floor.

More of the same is needed now, seeing as Valpo’s defense is on par with San Diego State’s.

But the Colonials seem capable of delivering, seem to be peaking at the right time.

Or something like that.

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