MSG Goes Buff And Blue As GW Rolls To NIT Title

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.


“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.

Game 130: NIT final – George Washington vs. Valparaiso: End of the line for 2015-16. #TMMLegacy

A photo posted by Ray Curren (@goldenbally) on


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.


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.”

For the final time, Game on! #TMMLegacy

A photo posted by Ray Curren (@goldenbally) on


Ivy League Weekly Roundup: Feb. 22

What Happened Last Week: The favorites held serve at the top of the Ivy League on Friday, but Saturday was more exciting. Columbia toppled Yale in New Haven, giving the Bulldogs their second Ivy loss. Meanwhile, Harvard survived a scare from Princeton to claim first place alone. Continue reading “Ivy League Weekly Roundup: Feb. 22”

Three Thoughts: Yale 81, Dartmouth 66 (Harvard Coming Saturday)

As it always does in the 14-Game Tournament, the Ivy League keeps throwing hurdles of different shapes and sizes at Yale, and so far at least, the Bulldogs have cleared them all. Friday, Dartmouth set up their obstacle in the middle of the paint and Yale went right around it, shooting 13-21 from three-point range to post a fairly comfortable 81-66 victory over the pesky Big Green at Lee Amphitheater.

The Bulldogs (16-6 overall) now stand at 5-0 in the Ivy League and will host rival and three-time defending Ivy champ Harvard Saturday night in what is expected to be a sellout.

Continue reading “Three Thoughts: Yale 81, Dartmouth 66 (Harvard Coming Saturday)”

Dartmouth Shocks Harvard With Second-Half Comeback

With 13 minutes left in Saturday’s game at Lavietes Pavilion, it seemed the Crimson would follow their usual path to victory. After a gritty, low-scoring first half, the hosts had exploded out of halftime to take a 14-point lead over Dartmouth. Surely the hosts would close out the game with suffocating defense, just as they had against Northeastern, against Boston University, and against the Big Green two weeks earlier.

This time, Dartmouth turned the tables. Over the next 10 minutes, the visitors reeled off an astounding 26-2 run, holding on for a 70-61 victory and the first upset of this Ivy League season.

According to Ken Pomeroy’s win probability calculator, Harvard had about a 98% chance to win when it led 43-29 in the second half. Several factors caused the Big Green’s comeback, their first victory over Harvard in six years:

Harvard’s energy lapsed at key points. Wesley Saunders had smothered leading scorer Alex Mitola throughout the first half, but when Malik Gill fell to the floor on a drive early in Dartmouth’s run, Saunders paused, perhaps expecting a traveling violation. A two-pass sequence found Mitola on the right wing, where he swished a three-pointer over Saunders’ late closeout. Later in the half, after a turnover in the paint, Gabas Maldunas beat all five Crimson players down the court for an uncontested, game-tying layup.

“They were playing harder,” Saunders said. “They were scrapping and fighting the whole game. We came out with a lot of energy to start the second half, but we couldn’t sustain it throughout.”

The Crimson’s lineup issues, a recurring theme this season, struck again. Harvard played the unproven Matt Brown and Chris Egi together midway through the half, then removed sharpshooter Corbin Miller with its offense sputtering, and finally finished the game with a four-guard lineup that has struggled this year. Even in the right situations, players came up short — Miller missed three open treys, and the team went 0-4 from the free-throw line during Dartmouth’s run.

“We’ve gone into offensive droughts, and that has hurt us,” Harvard coach Tommy Amaker said. “But we had opportunities to convert in transition … we had chances to finish around the rim. We didn’t do enough of what we needed to do.”

Most importantly, Dartmouth made the right adjustments. After coming off the bench and playing just nine minutes in the first half, Malik Gill was on the floor for the game’s final 16 minutes, giving the Big Green a spark on both ends.

Gill used his speed to disrupt Harvard’s defense: He notched a game-high six assists, and drove through a zone for a layup and one that fouled out Steve Moundou-Missi and gave Dartmouth the lead for good.  And he also used his notoriously quick hands: Twice tasked with defending Saunders in the post, the 5’9” guard poked the ball away both times, leading to run-outs for the Big Green.

Those plays were part of a larger Dartmouth strategy to mix up defensive looks, holding Harvard to 39% shooting and 18 turnovers. “If you let them run what they want to do on a consistent basis, it’s tough. They’re too talented and too well-coached,” Dartmouth coach Paul Cormier said. “But if we can sometimes have a little scatterbug like Malik, whose hands are always going … it’s a lot tougher.”

Dartmouth scored only 10 points in the first 12 minutes, thanks largely to Harvard’s fearsome interior defense. The Big Green made only one of their first nine shots from the post or restricted area; they finished the first half 4-14 there, but they started drawing fouls in the paint.


However, the Big Green were perfect at the basket in their second-half run, getting clean looks in transition and from offensive rebounds. Meanwhile, they also heated up from outside, including two Miles Wright three-pointers that capped the 26-2 spurt.


“We were able to get some turnovers and score off those turnovers,” Cormier said. “We didn’t have to run our offense all night against their very solid, five-on-five defense. They’re very tough to score on five-on-five, but tonight we were able to create some situations off our defense.”

Harvard isn’t panicking yet. Two games into a 14-game season is too early for that; besides, new Ivy favorite Yale nearly lost at home to shorthanded Brown at the same time as the Crimson went down. “We’re not discouraged. We know there’s still a lot of season to go,” Saunders said.

But there is no conference tournament in the Ivy League, and four of the last five champions have had two or fewer losses. That likely won’t happen this year; as Saturday’s results showed, there are no dominant teams, and the rest of the league has improved considerably. With four straight road games ahead, however — including trips to Princeton and Yale — the Crimson’s path to a fifth straight title looks much more difficult.