With head coach Mike Lonergan looking on, graduate student guard Alex Mitola celebrates after hitting a 3-pointer in GW’s win against George Mason earlier this season. Dan Rich | Contributing Photo Editor
With 14 seconds left in GW’s first-round game of the National Invitation Tournament against Hofstra Wednesday night, the Colonials’ season looked like it could end in a meltdown.
The visiting Pride, on a 9-0 run, had just tied the game at 80 and head coach Mike Lonergan had to come up with one play to stay alive, and choose the man to run it.
“I went back and forth a couple times, either to have Joe [McDonald] have the ball or Alex [Mitola]. Alex was 1-for-8 but he’s a little quicker getting the ball up the court and he’s great at penetrating and getting shot fakes,” Lonergan said.
Lonergan went with Mitola, the graduate student guard and Dartmouth transfer, and instructed him to wait until the end of the shot clock to make his move so that GW would get the last shot of the game. Forward Tyler Cavanaugh was to set a screen at the top of the key for Mitola to penetrate off of, then kick the ball back to Cavanaugh for a jumper.
But when Hofstra forward Rokas Gustys hedged off the screen, Mitola had another idea.
“I immediately thought ‘If I see that big guy trying to hedge, I’ve worked on this one-footed shot when they slide their feet, so I was looking for it,” Mitola said. “If they took that away I was going to do what he [Lonergan] said and find someone else and fortunately he slid his feet.”
With four seconds on the clock Mitola pulled up and shot the ball, off balance but with plenty of arc, and scored the game-winner that bought his team at least once more game in the 2015-16 season with an 82-80 win. His teammates mobbed him until 6-foot-10 forward Kevin Larsen, Mitola’s roommate, lifted the 5-foot-11 guard high above his head, a la Patrick Swayze in Dirty Dancing, and carried him off the court. The meltdown had given way to the moment.
The season saved, Lonergan could only tease the graduate student guard about doing a little freelance work.
“He doesn’t practice those one-hand runners in front of me,” Lonergan said.
Despite the mild ribbing, Lonergan’s embrace was one of the first Mitola entered (even before Larsen’s) after his game-winner. In Mitola’s one year at GW, the coach and player have become close. They go back-and-forth with each other often, but Mitola’s boldness has earned Lonergan’s respect, even if it means going off-book sometimes.
A lot can be learned watching Mitola and Lonergan talk during games. It’s also pretty funny. The two go from barking back and forth one moment to strategizing, heads together and hands on shoulders, the next. Sometimes the two seem more like an old married couple than player and coach. Mitola has often been the first player Lonergan mentions after a big game, like he did after the Colonials won at VCU on Feb. 6.
“Alex is one of our leaders,” Lonergan said then. “He’s a really confident young man, I love the give and take with me and him, he’s not afraid to come back at me with his feelings and I like that.”
A couple of weeks ago, I asked Mitola about his rapport with Lonergan. But to check that the team got a kick out of their back-and-forth too, I asked junior guard Matt Hart about it first.
“It’s funny when you look back at it because they’re both so stubborn,” Hart said. “It’s just like, butting heads the whole time. Because Alex doesn’t want to let something go and Lonergan’s definitely not going to let something go.”
When I spoke with Mitola, I asked him to think of an example. A huge smile broke out on his face, but he paused before answering.
“There’s a lot to choose from,” he said, leaning back and swiveling his chair from side to side. “Sometimes there’s, um, a disagreement,” Mitola chuckled. “So I want to pick one where there’s no disagreement.”
“We can go with the most recent one, there was a recent one at home against La Salle,” he said.
The team was up by 25 and Mitola was in the game with some of the reserves who don’t get a lot of minutes. He wanted to get freshman Colin Goss the ball off a pick-and-roll for a top of the key jumper. Both defenders went with Mitola off the screen and when he forced a pass to Goss, one of them rotated and picked it off.
“So I come to the sideline, sure enough there’s a time out, and coach says that that’s a terrible pass, it was a soft pass, it was a weak pass and I said ‘I know! I’m trying to get Colin involved!’ I don’t know if I make that pass if it’s a different time and score, I might have not done what I did. He’s coaching the same way and I just responded and I was like “Yeah, I know coach! I know, coach. I won’t do it again.” And you wouldn’t have known that we were up 30 at the time because we were yelling back and forth like we were down 30.”
“I’ll be the first one to tell him,” Mitola says. “Sometimes, I’ll be like ‘Coach I messed up that play.’ And he’ll like to remind me and remind me and remind me and sometimes that’s when you’ll see us go back and forth a little bit where I’ll say, ‘Coach I know, I messed up the play it won’t happen again!’ I think he appreciates that.”
It speaks to Lonergan’s trust in Mitola that he put the ball in his hands for the final play, especially since Mitola was 1-for-8 at the time. But Lonergan had already continued giving Mitola minutes through an early-season shooting slump only to have him find his stroke in conference play.
“He’s just such a confident offensive player,” Lonergan said after the Hofstra game.
Mitola finished the game 2-of-9 with four assists, two turnovers and three steals in 23 minutes. He provided GW’s only bench points of the night, his presence in the game going from quiet to season-altering in the final minutes. Proving that no good deed goes unpunished, Mitola’s heroics earned him a spot in the post-game press conference. That is, after Larsen whisked him away.
“He does that in the room once in a while so I didn’t know where he was going to take me,” Mitola said.
“Only on the road,” Lonergan jumped in. Coach gets the last word.