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Kevin Larsen

Seniors Patricio Garino and Kevin Larsen hug after GW's win over Florida on March 23. Garino and Larsen will participate in the Portsmouth Invitational tournament this weekend. Dan Rich | Contributing Photo Editor

Seniors Patricio Garino and Kevin Larsen hug after GW’s win over Florida on March 23. Garino and Larsen will participate in the Portsmouth Invitational tournament this weekend. Dan Rich | Contributing Photo Editor

Patricio Garino and Kevin Larsen will participate in this week’s 2016 Portsmouth Invitational Tournament, a competition showcasing the nation’s top seniors to scouts from the NBA and international leagues.

The international pair, which started all 38 games this season and helped men’s basketball take home its first National Invitation Tournament title in school history last month, kicks off PIT play Thursday night in Portsmouth, Va.

Garino finished GW’s historic 2015-2016 campaign as the team’s second-highest scorer, averaging a career-best 14.1 points per game while leading the Colonials with a 43 percent clip from three-point range. The Mar Del Plata, Argentina native is also a 1,000-plus career points scorer and received All-Defensive team nods in each of his last three seasons.

The six-foot-six-inch swingman will play for Portsmouth Sports Club alongside Wyoming guard Josh Adams, Northwestern guard Tre Demps, Fresno State guard Marvelle Harris, Austin Peay forward Chris Horton, Miami center Tonye Jekiri, SMU forward Markus Kennedy and Connecticut forward Shonn Miller.

Larsen, who finished his GW career as the all-time leader in games played at 136, averaged 12.3 points and a team-high 8.3 rebounds in his final season. Ranking second in the Atlantic 10 with 13 double-doubles, Larsen is also just one of seven players in program history to reach 1,000 points and 900 rebounds.

The Copenhagen, Denmark native will play for K&D Rounds with North Florida forward Beau Beech, BYU guard Kyle Collinsworth, Florida forward Dorian Finney-Smith, Michigan State guard Bryn Forbes, Auburn forward Tyler Harris, Butler forward Roosevelt Jones and Miami guard Angel Rodriguez.

The A-10 will also be represented by Richmond forward Terry Allen, VCU guard Melvin Johnson, Saint Joseph’s forward Isaiah Miles, Dayton forward Dyshawn Pierre and George Mason center Shevon Thompson.

Larsen’s squad will play Thursday at 7 p.m. while Garino’s follows at 9 p.m.

 

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Thursday, March 31, 2016 10:31 p.m.

Photos: The Colonials celebrate an NIT championship

We were at Madison Square Garden Thursday for the Colonials’ historic NIT championship win. Here’s a look back at the celebration:

Senior Kevin Larsen lifts up senior Joe McDonald after the Colonials clinched the NIT Championship. Dan Rich | Contributing Photo Editor

Senior Kevin Larsen lifts up senior Joe McDonald after the Colonials clinched the NIT Championship. Dan Rich | Contributing Photo Editor

Senior Joe McDonald hugs his teammates after winning the NIT championship. Dan Rich | Contributing Photo Editor

Senior Joe McDonald hugs his teammates after winning the NIT championship. Dan Rich | Contributing Photo Editor

Junior Tyler Cavanaugh hugs a teammate after GW's win. Dan Rich | Contributing Photo Editor

Junior Tyler Cavanaugh hugs a teammate after GW’s win. Dan Rich | Contributing Photo Editor

The team poses with the NIT championship trophy, the first in program history. Dan Rich | Contributing Photo Editor

The team poses with the NIT championship trophy. The championship win is the first in program history. Dan Rich | Contributing Photo Editor

Senior Kevin Larsen cuts down a piece of the net at Madison Square Garden. Dan Rich | Contributing Photo Editor

Senior Kevin Larsen cuts down a piece of the net at Madison Square Garden. Dan Rich | Contributing Photo Editor

Senior Patricio Garino and and Assistant Director of Basketball Operations Chris Holm lift Head Coach Mike Lonergan as he cuts down one of the nets at Madison Square Garden. Dan Rich | Contributing Photo Editor

Senior Patricio Garino and and Assistant Director of Basketball Operations Chris Holm lift Head Coach Mike Lonergan as he cuts down one of the nets at Madison Square Garden. Dan Rich | Contributing Photo Editor

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Senior Kevin Larsen lifts up senior Joe McDonald after the Colonials clinched the NIT Championship. Dan Rich | Contributing Photo Editor

Senior Kevin Larsen lifts up senior Joe McDonald after the Colonials clinched the NIT Championship. Dan Rich | Contributing Photo Editor

As they cut down the nets in Madison Square Garden, newly crowned champions of the National Invitation Tournament, the Colonials had a little fun.

As graduate student guard Alex Mitola climbed up the ladder to snip away his prize, senior guard Joe McDonald brought over a basketball and urged Mitola, 5-foot-11, to dunk it. Everyone cheered.

“Honestly I thought we deserved it,” McDonald said. “How we just bought in, we’ve worked so hard since the summer. It was a little disappointing not making the NCAAs but I thought the guys bought in just to make the most of this opportunity. That’s what we kept preaching, just to make the most of the opportunity we were given.”

By that time, the party had been going on in the Garden for some time. It started towards the end of the second half, when it became clear that GW would beat No. 1 seed Valparaiso to become the winningest team in program history at 28-10. Seniors McDonald, Patricio Garino and Kevin Larsen would win their last game, the 136th they’ve spent together as teammates, 76-60.

“It’s been a long four years and right now I’m just so happy,” Larsen said. “We get to go out with a win and show that what we did really helped the program.”

Senior guard Joe McDonald cuts down the nets in Madison Square Garden. Dan Rich | Contributing Photo Editor

Senior guard Joe McDonald cuts down the nets in Madison Square Garden. Dan Rich | Contributing Photo Editor

The party started right around the moment when Larsen hit his second three pointer of the night and McDonald swiped the ball from Valpo leading scorer Alec Peters and hit two free throws after getting fouled going down the court. GW led by 15 with less than six minutes left.

Yuta Watanabe started punching balls out of the air (OK, you call them blocks). The sizable GW crowd was screaming. Players waiting to get subbed into the game were coaching from the sideline.

“We couldn’t be happier to win this NIT Championship,” head coach Mike Lonergan said. “Extremely happy, especially for our, I hate to always say our seniors, but this class has been great. But Tyler [Cavanaugh], all our guys, even our subs tonight had great minutes.”

As it turned out, Larsen, McDonald and Garino didn’t finish their careers in the game. They were subbed out with less than a minute to play, the result no longer in question.

“These guys, I wanted to leave a legacy,” Lonergan said. “We didn’t make the NCAAs and we were all heartbroken and it’s hard to bounce back but they bounce back. Every team we played including Hofstra was tough, and we got better each game. We played our best basketball end of March.”

For a time, it wasn’t that easy. Both teams came out pushing the ball inside, trading punches. Larsen scored the first five points for the Colonials with a layup and a three-pointer, but Peters got going with seven points in the first six minutes to keep things close.

After Peters hit a three-pointer to pull Valpo within one GW went on a 7-0 run, trapping and pressuring the Crusaders into three turnovers during the stretch. The Colonials took an 18-10 lead.

They went back and forth a bit, but just after Cavanaugh, who was named the Most Outstanding Player of the tournament after the game, made a three-point play put GW up 24-16, Valpo went on an 8-0 run of its own. It took just one minute. Two threes, five points for guard Keith Carter and two GW turnovers brought the score to 24-24.

Larsen had had enough. With Valpo driving to take the lead, he got position in the paint, readying himself for his sacrifice. The referee called the charge moments after Larsen’s body slapped onto the Garden hardwood and Larsen grinned.

Senior Patricio Garino and and Assistant Director of Basketball Operations Chris Holm lift head coach Mike Lonergan as he cuts down one of the nets at Madison Square Garden. Dan Rich | Contributing Photo Editor

Senior Patricio Garino and and Assistant Director of Basketball Operations Chris Holm lift head coach Mike Lonergan as he cuts down one of the nets at Madison Square Garden. Dan Rich | Contributing Photo Editor

The Colonials got the ball back and, after a miss, Mitola grabbed an offensive rebound and chucked it to Larsen who found Garino open at the top of the key. Garino drained a triple.

“We had three years behind us and so many games before, I think we were calm the whole time and just confident in our games,” Garino said.

Still, the Colonials were up by just one, 32-31, at the half. It took a second-half push, driven by the team’s 1-3-1 defense, to run away with the game. For the second game in a row, the Colonials won by forcing their opponent to shoot threes and miss them – Valpo finished 8-of-28 from beyond the arc.

“It was the 1-3-1,” Larsen said. “It looked like we were back to sophomore year when the 1-3-1 was our go-to. I had a flashback to then, it kept them out of their comfort zone and it was that that got us the win.”

Overall, the Colonials held Valparaiso to 39 percent shooting and forced 14 turnovers. After his hot start, Peters never got close to his season-average of 22 points per game. He finished as the lone Crusader in double-figures with 15 points.

As the seconds ticked away on McDonald, Larsen and Garino’s careers, everyone smiled. It was the 136th game since the three became teammates. In games 132-135, the Colonials had fought for their lives, fought each time to play just one more game together. But there were no more games to play for this time. This time, the fight was over, and they were champions.

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Graduate student guard Alex Mitola celebrates GW's NIT quarterfinal victory over Florida. Hatchet File Photo by Dan Rich | Contributing Photo Editor

Graduate student guard Alex Mitola celebrates GW’s NIT quarterfinal victory over Florida. Hatchet File Photo by Dan Rich | Contributing Photo Editor

What: No. 4 men’s basketball (27–10) vs. No. 1 Valparaiso (30–6), NIT Championship
Where: Madison Square Garden, New York, ESPN (TV)
When: Thursday, March 31 at 7 p.m.

Three weeks ago, GW blew a 14-point, Atlantic 10 tournament quarterfinal lead to Saint Joseph’s. Its 2015–2016 campaign, brimming with potential back in November, seemed to end in utter disappointment.

But on the last day of March, the Colonials are still kicking – just one victory away from becoming the winningest men’s basketball team in program history. GW’s unexpected NIT run reaches its climax Thursday night in the Big Apple with a championship battle against top-seeded Valparaiso.

After a hot regular-season start, which included wins over nationally ranked Virginia and Big East champion Seton Hall, the Colonials fizzled out in conference play, finishing 11–7 against A-10 opponents. As an at-large NCAA bid eluded them for a second straight year, the Colonials earned a No. 4 seed in the NIT.

Victories against Hofstra, Florida and an upset at Monmouth propelled GW to a semifinal matchup with a dangerous San Diego State squad. Tuesday night at Madison Square Garden, the Aztecs fell 65–46 while the Colonials executed one of their greatest defensive efforts all year.

The Crusaders entered the NIT at 26–6 after being upset by Green Bay in the Horizon League Tournament semifinals in a 99–92 overtime decision. As a No. 1 seed, Valparaiso has since carved its way to the NIT final with wins over Texas Southern, Florida State, Saint Mary’s and BYU.

While GW, with a skilled veteran roster, arguably did not live up to its fullest potential this season, seniors Joe McDonald, Kevin Larsen and Patricio Garino, as well as graduate student Alex Mitola, now have a shot at walking away as champions in their final game donning the buff and blue.

Case for the Colonials:
Redshirt junior forward Tyler Cavanaugh has been a workhorse for GW all year, leading the team with 16.9 points per game, and averaging 21.3 per game across GW’s four NIT contests. During that span, Cavanaugh has racked up three double-doubles, including a game-high 20-point, 11-rebound performance against the Aztecs.

As a team, GW is averaging an impressive 79.0 points per game in the NIT to the Crusaders’ 74.3. Senior swingman Garino has helped that effort with 15.8 points per game and a 59.6 percent field goal percentage, while fellow fourth-year Kevin Larsen posts a team-best 4.0 assists per game.

While Valparaiso is outrebounding GW on the season, in the NIT, Cavanaugh’s 9.8 boards per game guide a team rebounding effort of 39.8 per game to the Crusaders’ 38.5.

The Colonials will attempt to carry over a determined semifinal defensive effort, in which they held the Aztecs to a season-low 46 points and 28.8 percent shooting clip, and scored 15 points off 11 San Diego State turnovers. Valparaiso committed a season-worst 20 turnovers against BYU.

GW also owns a strong 16–3 record against nonconference opponents, while the Crusaders are 14–4.

Case for the Crusaders:
Valparaiso’s junior forward Alec Peters, a strikingly similar player to Cavanaugh, captains a talented offense with 18.4 points per game, while averaging 22.2 during the NIT. The 6-foot-9-inch big man also paces his team with 8.4 rebounds per game.

Senior guard Keith Carter adds 10.3 points and a team-best 4.4 assists per game.

The NCAA bubble team, part of the first four left out of the Big Dance, boasts an RPI of 49 to GW’s 65. Their deep roster contains nine players who average at least 15 minutes per game and averaged 76 points per game on the year.

In their 72–70 win over BYU, five Crusaders scored in double-figures, including Croatian sophomore forward David Skara, who put up a team-high 15 points off the bench.

Despite giving away a 16-point lead Tuesday, Valparaiso held BYU’s offense, one of the top 10 highest-scoring teams in country, to just 38.2 percent from the field and 7-for-21 from deep.

Senior center Vashil Fernandez helps lead the charge defensively as the the best shot blocker in the country. The 6-foot-10-inch Kingston, Jamaica native leads NCAA Division I with 114 total blocks and 3.26 per game.

The bottom line:
The contest marks the first-ever meeting between the two programs and the first trip to the NIT finals for either squad, so anything goes. Defensive focus will be key for both sides, as neither team plans to go down quietly after getting this far. GW remains the underdog, but it’s anyone’s guess as to who will end its season cutting down the nets at The World’s Most Famous Arena.

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Redshirt junior Tyler Cavanaugh signals to the crowd after draining a three-point basket in GW's win against SDSU. Cavanaugh led the Colonials with 20 points and 11 rebounds. Dan Rich | Contributing Photo Editor

Redshirt junior Tyler Cavanaugh signals to the crowd after draining a three-point basket in GW’s win against SDSU. Cavanaugh led the Colonials with 20 points and 11 rebounds. Dan Rich | Contributing Photo Editor

NEW YORK — Joe McDonald, Patricio Garino, Kevin Larsen and Alex Mitola will end their careers as Colonials in a title match.

With a 65-46 win over San Diego State Tuesday night in Madison Square Garden, GW punched its ticket to the National Invitation Tournament’s finals. The Colonials will face Valparaiso on Thursday night at 7 p.m. with a chance to cut down the nets and become the winningest team in program history.

“I’m proud of them,” head coach Mike Lonergan said. “We are playing for a championship. We know it’s not going to be easy and I can’t wait for Thursday night and I’m very happy I get to coach these guys for two more days.”

Redshirt junior forward Tyler Cavanaugh led the charge with 20 points and 11 rebounds, capping his night with a deadeye three-pointer with two minutes to go that put GW up by the game’s final margin. On the next play, GW’s reserves came in to close it out on the Garden hardwood.

The outcome had been determined by that point, but when GW raced out to a 6-0 lead, it was a surprise. SDSU owned the No. 2 defense in the country according to stats guru Ken Pomeroy’s rankings. But instead of getting soaked up in a half-court game, the Colonials came out running, led by Garino who scored most of his 13 points in transition. Instead of being flummoxed by the Aztec press, GW tallied 17 assists, six from McDonald.

“That was key for us, handling that press that they had,” Garino said. “We talked about it a lot during our scouting and I think we did a great job, Alex, Joe, Paul [Jorgensen], even Kevin and Tyler, I think we were secure with the ball and making the right passes.”

The Colonials had poured over SDSU’s defense, but the Aztecs’ offense was a bit more of a question mark: SDSU had struggled to score during the regular season, but was as red hot as the team’s crimson uniforms

Sophomore guard Yuta Watanabe celebrates a three-pointer in GW's win over San Diego State Tuesday in the NIT semifinals. Dan Rich | Contributing Photo Editor

Sophomore guard Yuta Watanabe celebrates a three-pointer in GW’s win over San Diego State Tuesday in the NIT semifinals. Dan Rich | Contributing Photo Editor

coming into the game. GW’s opponent had won its first three NIT games by scoring 79, 93 and 72 points.

But the Colonials came out focused on defense. Garino drew two early charges, setting the tone that GW would not just get out of the way. And with presence established in the lane, the Colonials wound up forcing the Aztecs to shoot bad threes all night. SDSU finished the game 3-for-22 from beyond the arc.

“We wanted to make their shots come from the outside and that got our offense going,” Lonergan said. “We wanted them to shoot a lot of threes.”

After getting on the board with a three-point play the old fashioned way, SDSU managed to tie the game at six early. Then, the Colonials came back with a stretch in which they hit 12-of-15 from the field. GW led 35-20 at halftime.

GW’s biggest scare came late in the first half when McDonald sprained his left ankle. He went back in the tunnel early, limping, but was out to play the second half, which should surprise no one who has seen him play through countless bumps and bruises over the last four years.

The Colonials came out, as they often do, in the 1-3-1 zone to start the second half. In lesser performances, the zone has been demolished and abandoned (in that order) but on Tuesday it was stellar. The zone not only allowed McDonald to keep playing, protected on its weak size, but made the Aztecs keep shooting even more threes. They might as well have been shooting from back home in San Diego.

The Aztecs got inside the zone on a few possessions and scored 14 points on second chances, but they had no other weapons firing and finished shooting 28 percent from the field. Dakari Allen, aided by a 6-for-6 night from the free throw line, was SDSU’s only double-digit scorer with 13 points.

No one else got more than seven. The team was impressive around the rim on defense, blocking six shots, but never threatened for the final 30 minutes of the game. Even when GW went through a 1-for-6 stretch in the middle of the second half, the lead never slipped below 14.

“This is a great team,” Cavanaugh said. “I mean, I’m so excited to be able to play two more days with them, one more game. We’re a balanced team and that’s very fun. Everyone contributes and that’s why we won tonight.”

So it’s on to Valparaiso, on to a game that – once and for all – will end a season that seemed over on a few separate occasions. As it turns out, GW’s going to milk this one for just a little bit longer.

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Senior guard Joe McDonald hugs Associate Head Coach Hajj Turner after the Colonials defeated florida. GW will head to Madison Square Garden on Tuesday for the semifinals. Dan Rich | Contributing Photo Editor

Senior guard Joe McDonald hugs Associate Head Coach Hajj Turner after the Colonials defeated Florida 82–77 at the Smith Center. GW will head to Madison Square Garden on Tuesday for the NIT semifinals. Dan Rich | Contributing Photo Editor

Nursing a fragile 74–73 lead in the final minutes of an electric NIT quarterfinal Wednesday night, GW left Florida’s leading scorer Dorian Finney-Smith open for a three.

Head coach Mike Lonergan, turned away in frustration – it appeared lax team defense, a problem spot all year that had dissipated in GW’s last few games, had come back to haunt them.

But the shot didn’t fall. Senior forward Kevin Larsen gobbled up the rebound, Lonergan called timeout.

Out of the break, with 54 seconds remaining, redshirt junior forward Tyler Cavanaugh nailed an open three off a dish from graduate student guard Alex Mitola that pushed the Colonials (26-10) to a four-point edge, and ultimately, an 82–77 victory over the second-seeded Gators (21-15) at the Smith Center.

“I thought our guys were energized, we had trouble keeping them off the glass and a couple of crazy turnovers off the press but man was it a hard-fought game and luckily we made big plays.” Lonergan said. “That last three that Tyler hit was huge. That’s definitely the guy I want shooting from that spot.”

Cavanaugh’s 23 points, 18 of which came in the second half, was a game-high. The Wake Forest transfer hit half of GW’s eight three-pointers on the night, helping the Colonials go 47.7 percent from the field as a team.

Before Cavanaugh’s offensive explosion, however, his front-court partner provided the spark. Larsen scored 14 points in the final frame and 19 total, dominating the glass with a game-high 13 boards to propel GW to a 40–35 edge against the 24th-best rebounding team in the country.

“I didn’t want this to be my last game so I gave it everything,” Larsen said. “I felt like I had more weight on them, the guys that was guarding me, so I felt like if I got two feet into the paint I felt like I would score every time so that’s what I tried to do.”

“I mean Kevin [Larsen] went on a tear,” Cavanaugh said. “When he plays like that no one can guard him, I tell him that every day.”

Redshirt junior Tyler Cavanaugh puts up a shot in GW's NIT quarterfinal win against Florida. Cavanaugh led the Colonials with 23 points against the Gators. Dan Rich | Contributing Photo Editor

Redshirt junior Tyler Cavanaugh puts up a shot in GW’s NIT quarterfinal win against Florida. Cavanaugh led the Colonials with 23 points against the Gators. Dan Rich | Contributing Photo Editor

But their SEC foe did not make it easy for GW to punch its ticket to Madison Square Garden by forcing 10 turnovers and going 14-of-16 at the line with four players scoring in double-figures.

Freshman guard KeVaughn Allen registered a team-high 22 points, but his team went just 43 percent from the field due to, for the most part, solid GW defense, which Larsen noted as the key to the win.

“We just haven’t been able to [play good defense] consistently and that’s what kept us out of the Big Dance but today [the team] was more focused,” Lonergan said. “We’ve been practicing well, Joe [McDonald]’s been practicing great and I think he’s really stepped us his game which is what we needed.”

Senior swingman Patricio Garino guided the Colonials in the first half with 11 points and finished with 13. As his veterans were rolling, Lonergan got the bench active early.

Sophomore Paul Jorgensen and junior guard Matt Hart provided a crucial spark off the pine, combining for nine points in the first half. Mitola added five in the second half to bump the bench total for the game up to 14.

Allen led the Gators with nine points in the frame as his team’s offense racked up nine assists, and 13 on the night, taking advantage of six GW turnovers.

A back-and-forth half had the Colonials up by just one with just slightly more than 20 seconds remaining, but beating multiple defenders with a sweet drive to the rim, senior guard Joe McDonald pushed GW’s halftime to a slightly more comfortable 39–36 halftime edge.

The Colonials began the second half in foul trouble after being assessed four personals in the first three minutes, which helped the Gators regain multiple leads throughout the frame.

Sophomores Yuta Watanabe and Paul Jorgensen celebrate GW's win over Florida. The pair combined for 40 minutes of play. Dan Rich | Contributing Photo Editor

Sophomores Yuta Watanabe and Paul Jorgensen celebrate GW’s win over Florida. The pair combined for 40 minutes of play. Dan Rich | Contributing Photo Editor

Turnovers, off which Florida scored 14 points, also helped the visitors keep it close. A fierce press, especially in the last few minutes of the contest, led to fast transition buckets – like off a steal from Mitola right under the basket that cut the Gators’ deficit to 69–68.

“I was more disappointed we kept fouling, when we were trying to get our defense set we would bail them out,” Lonergan said. “And they were making their free throws and we weren’t so it got to be contagious.”

GW went an uncharacteristic 60 percent from the line as a whole, but with a 77–73 lead after Cavanaugh’s big three, he and Mitola combined for five clutch points from the stripe to close out the game.

The fourth-seeded Colonials now await an NIT semifinal matchup with second-seeded San Diego State in the World’s Most Famous Arena on Tuesday.

Graduate student guard Alex Mitola celebrates GW's NIT quarterfinal victory over Florida. Mitola scored five in 19 minutes off the bench. Dan Rich | Contributing Photo Editor

Graduate student guard Alex Mitola celebrates GW’s NIT quarterfinal victory over Florida. Mitola scored five in 19 minutes off the bench. Dan Rich | Contributing Photo Editor

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Senior swingman Patricio Garino puts up a shot in GW's win against Monmouth Monday. Garino and the Colonials will look to extend their season Wednesday at home in an NIT quarterfinal clash with the Florida Gators. Dan Rich | Contributing Photo Editor

Senior swingman Patricio Garino puts up a shot in GW’s win against Monmouth Monday. Garino and the Colonials will look to extend their season Wednesday at home in an NIT quarterfinal clash with the Florida Gators. Dan Rich | Contributing Photo Editor

What: No. 4 Men’s basketball (25-10, 15-3 Home) vs. No. 2 Florida (21-14, 6-8 Away), NIT Quarterfinal

Where: Smith Center, Washington D.C., ESPN2 (TV)

When: Wednesday, March 22 at 7 p.m.

With a dominant 87–71 victory over No. 1 seed Monmouth on the road Monday, GW earned a spot in the NIT quarterfinals for the first time in school history.

Officially the last Atlantic 10 team left standing in March, the fourth-seeded Colonials will take on the second-seeded Florida Gators of the SEC, a power-conference league that sent three teams to this year’s NCAA Tournament, with a trip to Madison Square Garden and the NIT semifinals on the line.

Although the Gators own the higher seed, Wednesday night’s matchup will be hosted at the Smith Center due to ongoing renovations at Florida’s O’Connell Center.

Florida was booted from the SEC Tournament by Texas A&M on March 11, but enters the contest behind back-to-back NIT road wins at No. 7 seed North Florida and No. 3 seed Ohio State, its first road win over a Big Ten team in school history.

GW and the visitors share three mutual opponents. The Gators defeated Saint Joseph’s and Richmond in non-conference play, but fell to Tennessee 83–69 in early January. Florida also boasts wins over LSU and then-No. 9 West Virginia, but blew its NCAA Tournament chances by going 3-6 in its last nine games of the regular season.

The Case for the Colonials:

Despite a season average of 75.8 points per game, GW’s offense has been hot as of late, scoring 80 points or more in each of its last three outings.

Redshirt junior forward Tyler Cavanaugh champions that effort with a team-high 16.7 points per game, and led the Colonials with 22 points and 12 rebounds at Monmouth. Senior forward Kevin Larsen paces GW with 8.3 boards per game, while senior swingman Patricio Garino adds a sturdy 14.2 points per contest.

Against a Florida team that starts a sophomore and two freshmen, the Colonials’ veteran experience may prove key. GW has six 1,000-point scorers on its roster and starts three seasoned seniors in Garino, Larsen and guard Joe McDonald who combined for more than two thirds of their team’s point total Monday.

The Colonials’ defense, which has been sluggish all year, also saw improvement against the Hawks. While GW allowed its opponents to shoot 43.3 percent from the field on the season, the Colonials held Monmouth to 34 percent and just 4-of-21 from three-point range. The Gators also score only a modest 73.6 points per game, and went just 6-8 on the road this year while GW is 15-3 at home.

The Case for the Gators:

Senior forward Dorian Finney-Smith guides a young Florida team with 14.9 points and 8.3 rebounds per game. Six-foot-11-inch sophomore center John Egbunu (11.5 PPG) and freshman guard KeVaughn Allen (11.3 PPG) bolster the offense.

Strong board play could be a key advantage for the SEC squad. The Gators average 40.1 rebounds per game, tied for the 24th-most in country, compared to GW’s 37.9.

Playing in a power-conference also means Florida, who enters with an RPI of 52 to GW’s 65, has faced teams with a top-25 RPIs, such as powerhouses like Kentucky, Texas A&M, Michigan State and Miami, nine times this season. They went 2-7, while the Colonials saw only five teams with RPIs of 25 or greater and went 2-3.

Defensively, Florida concedes an average of 68.5 points per game, holds an advantage over GW in both steals (7) and blocks (4) per game, and is allowing its opponents to shoot just over 40 percent from the field.

Head coach Mike White, who replaced Billy Donovan, now at the helm of the Oklahoma City Thunder, will also be in search of his 22nd win of the season Wednesday, which would mark the most wins by a first-year coach in the team’s history.

The Bottom Line:

The Gators, a high-major program, will likely be a tougher test than either Hofstra or Monmouth. GW will need to draw momentum from its veterans and stay focused defensively, like it did Monday night in New Jersey, in order to extend its season and earn a trip to Manhattan.

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Senior swingman Patricio Garino goes up for a basket in the Colonials' win against Monmouth in the second round of the NIT. Garino scored 19 points in 33 minutes of play. Dan Rich | Contributing Photo Editor

Senior swingman Patricio Garino goes up for a basket in the Colonials’ win against Monmouth in the second round of the NIT. Garino scored 19 points in 33 minutes of play. Dan Rich | Contributing Photo Editor

WEST LONG BRANCH, N.J. — The actions of the Monmouth Hawks – their jubilant bench celebrations, upsets over power conference opponents and eventual exclusion from the NCAA Tournament – were chronicled extensively over the course of the year.

But on Monday night, the Colonials closed the book on Monmouth’s season in an 87-71 win in the second round of the National Invitation Tournament.

“We were able to beat a team in their gym that was right there [for the NCAA Tournament],” head coach Mike Lonergan said. “I’m excited to coach our seniors for another three days.”

GW’s three seniors, playing to extend their careers as Colonials, all reached double-figures in scoring. Patricio Garino and Kevin Larsen each scored 19 and Joe McDonald added 16 on 5-for-7 shooting to go with seven rebounds. For his part, redshirt junior forward Tyler Cavanaugh had a double-double with 22 points and 12 rebounds.

The only starter not to reach double-figures in scoring, Yuta Watanabe, may have been more valuable than all of them. He spent the majority of the game shutting down Monmouth’s leading scorer and Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference Player of the Year Justin Robinson. Robinson, who at 5-foot-8 is an entire foot shorter than Watanabe (he spent much of his time on defense guarding 5-foot-11 Alex Mitola), was 2-for-16 with six points.

“No doubt Yuta was the player of the game for us,” Larsen said. “He was the MVP. He locked down a guy that is averaging 19 a game so this game goes to Yuta.”

Micah Seaborn led the Hawks’ guard-driven offense with 24 points and Je’lon Hornbeak added 14, but Monmouth shot 34 percent overall. That, and a 46-36 GW advantage off the glass, was enough to negate the cost of the Colonials’ 16 turnovers.

“To their credit, what hurt us, they got out on our guards and we really struggled to run an offense,” Lonergan said. “They pressured us up top, we had some guys come in there and get stripped, offensive fouls, so their ball pressure was better than I expected up top.”

Senior forward Kevin Larsen celebrates a three point basket in the Colonials win over Monmouth in the second round of the NIT. Larsen had 19 points, six of which were from the three ball. Dan Rich | Contributing Photo Editor

Senior forward Kevin Larsen celebrates a three point basket in the Colonials win over Monmouth in the second round of the NIT. Larsen had 19 points, six of which were from the three ball. Dan Rich | Contributing Photo Editor

To counter Monmouth’s pressure, Lonergan had Larsen setting a number of screens at the top of the key. The big man also racked up five assists during the game.

“They like to run up and down,” Larsen said. “We have two traditional bigs so it was a test for us and I felt like we passed it.”

The Colonials never trailed, but Monmouth didn’t go quietly. The Hawks answered each run, getting close only to see GW answer, either with a cut to the basket or one of the team’s nine threes.

At the start of the game, GW raced out to a 14-4 lead, but Monmouth answered with an 11-3 run and cut the lead to two points at 17-15. Head coach Mike Lonergan called a timeout, and it worked: GW hit 5-of-6 during the following stretch to pull back ahead by eight. The Colonials would have gone into the break with a healthy cushion, but GW was just 1-for-5 from the charity stripe in the first half and Monmouth made its last five buckets of the first period.

Monmouth cut the lead to one early in the second half with a layup and-one from Deon Jones, who was the third player for the Hawks to reach double-figures with 11 points. But Larsen went strong to the basket to answer and Cavanaugh added a three to pull away again.

Sophomore forward Yuta Watanabe goes up for a layup in GW's win against Monmouth. Watanabe was held to six points but put up a strong performance on the defensive end. Dan Rich | Contributing Photo Editor

Sophomore forward Yuta Watanabe goes up for a layup in GW’s win against Monmouth. Watanabe was held to six points but put up a strong performance on the defensive end. Dan Rich | Contributing Photo Editor

There were some nerves when Garino and Cavanaugh picked up their fourth fouls with a few minutes to play, but Lonergan had hoarded timeouts and was able to go offense-defense for a few plays to protect them.

The Hawks made their last run with about eight minutes to go, aided by a handful of free throws. It was a five-point game with 8:15 to play after a pair of free throws from Robinson, but McDonald hit a jumper and Cavanaugh hit his second three to push the GW lead back to 10. Garino hit another three to extend the lead, which stayed in double-digits through the end of the game.

So GW survives and advances. The Colonials will play Florida on Wednesday at 7 p.m. That game will be televised on ESPN2. Because Florida’s O’Connell Center is closed for renovations, the No. 2-seed Gators give up their right to host and will travel to the Smith Center.

“My career can continue,” Larsen said. “I like that! But also, we get a big household name coming to our gym. Hopefully we can win that and go to Madison Square Garden.”

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Saturday, March 19, 2016 12:24 p.m.

NIT Preview: Men’s basketball vs. Monmouth

Graduate student Alex Mitola dribbles the ball in GW's win against Hofstra in the first round of the NIT. Mitola hit the game-winning shot with under three seconds left in the win. Kiana Robertson | Hatchet Staff Photographer

Graduate student Alex Mitola dribbles the ball in GW’s win against Hofstra in the first round of the NIT. Mitola hit the game-winning shot with under three seconds left in the win. Kiana Robertson | Hatchet Staff Photographer

What:
Men’s basketball (24-10, 1-0 NIT) at Monmouth (28-7, 1-0 NIT) in the NIT second round.
Where: Multipurpose Athletic Center, West Long Branch, N.J., ESPN (T.V.)

When: Monday, March 21 at 7 p.m.

After a last-second game-winner got them by No. 5-seed Hofstra at home, the Colonials travel to No. 1-seed Monmouth Monday night with a chance to advance in the National Invitation Tournament.

GW has shown that it has a higher ceiling than Monmouth this season. The problem for the Colonials, though, is that they haven’t always played up to that ceiling. Meanwhile, Monmouth has exceeded expectations in a year in which the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference regular season champions knocked off USC, UCLA, Notre Dame and Georgetown.

The winner will play either No. 3-seed Ohio State or No. 2-seed Florida after the Buckeyes and Gators face off Sunday afternoon. If the Colonials beat Monmouth, they would definitely be traveling as the lower seed for a quarterfinals game.

First, though, they would have to get past Monmouth, a good team that poses matchup problems for GW. Here’s what to expect from the game:

The Case for the Colonials:

If the Colonials win Monday, it will likely be because they’ve succeeded in pounding the ball inside, controlling the rebounding battle and getting to the line – as has been the case in wins all year.

Monmouth has a 6-foot-10, 240 body inside in junior center Chris Brady, but Brady doesn’t have the numbers (6.7 points, 6.0 rebounds per game) to show that he could compete to GW’s one-two punch of Kevin Larsen and Tyler Cavanaugh. Of the five players who see the most minutes for Monmouth, none are above 6-foot-7.

Monmouth has played good defense this year, owning the 55th-best adjusted defense in the country according to Kenpom while forcing 15 turnovers per game, but dominating the interior could help the Colonials counteract that.

The Case for the Hawks:

Monmouth is a guard-driven team in the clearest sense. The Hawks’ five leading scorers are all guards and it’s a group of five guards who get the most playing time.

Justin Robinson, a 5-foot-8 junior guard, leads the Hawks in scoring with 19.6 points per game while dishing out 3.7 assists. Micah Seaborn and Deon Jones, both long, athletic guards, add 12.9 and 10.4 points per game, while Jones adds 6.2 rebounds per game.

That gives Monmouth some fast horses. With their personnel, the Hawks play at one of the fastest tempos in the country. Their average possession on offense takes 14.7 seconds, eighth-fastest in the nation according to Kenpom.

Typically, GW struggles to stop teams with quick guards. Another game in which they allow an opponent to shoot over 50 percent from the field would likely spell the end of the Colonials’ season.

The Bottom Line:
In March, anything can happen. Monmouth, playing at home as one of the first four teams left out of the NCAA Tournament field, is the favorite. If the Colonials can find their defensive presence, though, they could extend their season.

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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 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.

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