The coach got up in front of his nervous young team before the NIT finals at Madison Square Garden Thursday night and gave his pregame speech:
“Look, have fun out there. How many people have an opportunity like this to go out and perform in a place like this? You’ve earned the right to be here. Enjoy it. Let’s go.”
Of course, that was the leader of the Metropolitan Youth Orchestra of New York and they were only singing the Star Spangled Banner, but it’s not like everyone gets to take center stage at The World’s Most Famous Arena, even for 90 seconds.
As I talked about Tuesday, George Washington’s destruction of the NIT field (it is noted that the Colonials needed a buzzer-beater to top Hofstra in the first round) that culminated in a 76-60 rout of Valparaiso in the finals is extremely impressive, but does serve to illuminate the regular season losses to DePaul, Saint Louis, and Richmond (at home) that served to keep it out of the NCAA Tournament.
However, there were 31 other teams in the NIT that had some kind of flaw, and none of those were cutting down the nets in New York City Thursday.
George Washington 76, Valparaiso 60 final. Colonials fully deserved NIT champs: pic.twitter.com/4UUqDgdKMD
— Ray Curren (@currenrr) April 1, 2016
“These guys wanted to leave a legacy,” George Washington coach Mike Lonergan said. “We didn’t make the NCAAs and we were all heartbroken and it’s hard to bounce back, but they did bounce back. Every team we played was tough, and we got better each game. We played our best basketball at the end of March. I told them I wanted, instead of Senior Night, I wanted it to Senior Month. And that’s what it was. I’m happy for them. Happy to be here.”
The Colonials’ (28-10) senior class had a losing record in its freshman season, but became the first mid-major to win the NIT since Wichita St. in 2011. Rising to the heights Gregg Marshall and the Shockers have achieved is unlikely, especially with Patricio Garino (14 pts.), Kevin Larsen (game-high 18 pts.), Joe McDonald (13 pts., 8 rebs.), and Alex Mitola all leaving. But Lonergan, the former Vermont coach who was rumored to be headed to Rutgers before Steve Pikiell got the job, has potential Atlantic 10 Player of the Year Tyler Cavanaugh (who was named Tournament’s Most Outstanding Player and had 12 points Thursday) likely returning and should get plenty of help from Seton Hall transfer Jaren Sina next season.
But 2016-17 is still six months away. For this night (and the next few at least), George Washington can celebrate a national title, even if it is the NIT. The Colonials led only 32-31 at the half, but Lonergan smartly showed only a 2-3 zone in the first half, saving the 1-3-1 that has baffled opponents until Valparaiso (30-7) couldn’t have a halftime to adjust.
The result was Valpo coach Bryce Drew using all his time outs before the final media break and George Washington slowly but surely pulling away.
“I think it was just energy,” Lonergan said, trying to explain why his zone was so effective in the postseason.
The Crusaders, who probably had a better NCAA at-large case than the Colonials, obviously have nothing to be ashamed of despite a poor second half. Both Homer and Baylor coach Scott Drew were in attendance Thursday and Valparaiso proved with four NIT wins that they were certainly NCAA worthy, even if they play in the lightly regarded (by national folk) Horizon League.
“I told our guys, one game doesn’t define your season, and we won 30 games. Sensational run to get here,” Bryce Drew said. “Unfortunately, we didn’t play as well as we would have liked today. I’m extremely proud of these guys. They have won 58 games in two years, won two conference championships, played in the NCAA Tournament and now NIT runner-up. I couldn’t be more proud of them. The best thing about them is they are enjoyable to be around and they win in other areas off the basketball court, too.”
Vashil Fernandez had six points and six rebounds in his final collegiate game and if you don’t know his story, you probably should, it’s an amazing one.
“Just being around these guys was a great opportunity to grow as a player, as a father, as a husband, and as a student-athlete,” Fernandez said. “The unit that we have, I think that just summarizes everything about our team, togetherness.”
Like their opponents, Valpo loses a good deal of talent to graduation, but returns probably their best player in Alec Peters, who had 15 points and 10 rebounds in the final, even though he really struggled in the second half against the 1-3-1.
Like Lonergan, Drew was rumored for a few more higher profile jobs, but given the family tradition and the talent coming through Valparaiso, he’s got a good thing going and it wouldn’t be surprising at all to see he and the Crusaders back in the NCAA Tournament next season.
— GW Men's Basketball (@GW_MBB) April 1, 2016
Thursday, however, belonged to George Washington. Yes, Madison Square Garden was less than half full (announced attendance 7,016) and the nation’s attention will turn to Houston and the FInal Four probably before you’re done reading this, but for one night, “Hail to the Buff and Blue” echoed through the halls of the arena and spilled out into the streets of midtown. The Empire State Building was also bathed in GW colors after the victory, and even if the country may not remember the NIT winners for long, it was a night the sizable NYC alumni base will never forget.
“This is a big deal for our university, our players, and our program,” Lonergan said. “I’m proud of these guys that helped put our program back on the map, but we are not where we want to be yet. We want to keep this growing.”