WASHINGTON, D.C. — George Washington has been the face of all that is good — and bad — when it comes to transfers in college basketball. They lost two rising seniors as graduate transfers during the offseason, bringing in Indiana castoff Maurice Creek to join former Villanova Wildcat Isaiah Armwood as the face of a team hoping to draw some of the city’s attention down in D.C.’s Foggy Bottom neighborhood.
Isaiah Armwood’s photo is plastered on the walls of the metro stop on campus. Creek entered Tuesday night averaging a team-high 14.8 points, which included a 25-point performance and a game-winning shot as the Colonials knocked off Maryland at the Verizon Center — the home of the Washington Wizards — back in December.
But on Tuesday night, when the Smith Center hosted its most important Atlantic 10 game in recent memory, it wasn’t head coach Mike Lonergan’s pair of senior transfers that played the role of hero. It was Kevin Larsen and Patricio Garino, two sophomores that Lonergan recruited from Denmark and Argentina, respectively, that shined the brightest. Larsen scored 17 of his career-high 22 points in the first half while Garino finished with 25 points, seven boards and three steals off the bench as the Colonials knocked off Atlantic 10 favorite VCU, 76-66.
VCU’s known for their pressure defensively, and the Colonials won despite turning the ball over 21 times. That’s what happens when you score 1.41 PPP when you actually get a shot off.
“I told them before the game, some coaching friends of mine always say, ‘Next play, next play,'” Lonergan said. “I’m not really good at that. I told them they’re going to have to block me out. I’ll be going crazy that they turned the ball over and they’re going to have to just move on.”
It was the second straight game that Larsen dominated on the block, as he set a career-high against Rhode Island with 17 points on Saturday, but it’s the emergence of Garino that could end up being the difference-maker for GW this season. An athletic, 6-foot-6 wing, Garino was changed the game in the second half, scoring 18 points and notching all three of his steals in the final 20 minutes. He was able to get behind VCU’s press for a number of easy buckets, helping take the pressure off of a GW back court that got dangerously close to being overwhelmed by VCU’s ‘Havoc’ defense.
As good as he was in the open floor, Garino’s bigger impact came on the defensive end. “He was an absolute sparkplug,” VCU head coach Shaka Smart said after the game, and that term could not encapsulate his effect on the game any better. GW likes to switch defenses, and one of the tricks that Lonergan keeps in his back pocket is a 1-3-1 zone where he plays Garino at the top. His length and athleticism was so disruptive for VCU as he created a handful of turnovers and bad possessions simply by being a presence on the floor.
“He’s great defensively,” Lonergan said, but Garino seemed to have a sense of the moment on Tuesday night. When GW needed a play made, he made it. When they needed points, he found a way to score. Timing doesn’t show up in a box score, but Garino had plenty of it on Tuesday. “He’s a good shooter we’re trying to make a great shooter,” Lonergan said. “He broke his finger and has had some setbacks, so it was really special to see him hit some threes when we needed threes.”
“I’ve always felt that when he gets that jumper going, he can be a pro.”
Perhaps what is most impressive about GW’s 14-3 record this season is that Garino has been in and out of the lineup as he dealt with the finger injury, one that was aggravated during a practice on the team’s trip to California for the Wooden Legacy. It was a blessing in disguise, however, as it allowed Kethan Savage a chance to emerge into the player that he is today. If we’re talking about GW’s sophomore class, he may the most important name to mention.
Savage has emerged as GW’s second-leading scorer this season, averaging 13.8 points in 26.8 minutes a season after averaging just 3.1 points in a limited role off the bench. Garino’s absence hurt the Colonials in the short term, but it may have actually been a blessing in disguise.
“Kethan has been able to play through a lot of mistakes,” Lonergan said. “He worked hard in the offseaosn, improved his game. He’s playing to his strengths, and his strengths are slashing and getting to the rim. He’s really difficult to guard.”
This is what Mike Lonergan envisioned when he made the decision to take over a struggling George Washington program back in the spring of 2011.
The Smith Center packed with 4,874 fans with a national television audience tuning in to watch the Colonials knock off a league power and a national name in convincing fashion.
GW still has plenty of work to do — like, for example, winning a game on the road — but with neutral court wins over Creighton and Maryland already on their resume, GW has played their way into contention for an at-large bid.
Lonergan isn’t looking that far ahead, however.
“We’re trying to earn respect,” he said.
Well, they got it.