WASHINGTON, D.C. — It’s amazing the difference that one year makes.
Last season, when George Washington made the drive down Route 29 to visit Charlottesville, Virginia beat the brakes off of the Colonials, winning 59-42 in a game that didn’t feel that close in the second half. Last season, when GW center Kevin Larsen was asked to try and handle the big-to-big double-teams that Virginia throws at opposing post players, he … well, he wasn’t good.
“Kevin had the worst game of his career last year,” Patricio Garino said with a laugh on Monday night. It was a message that he and GW his teammates relayed to Larsen over and over again in the lead-up to the rematch.
George Washington kicked off the 24-Hour Tip-Off Marathon in style, picking up the biggest win of Mike Lonergan’s tenure as they knocked off No. 6 Virginia, 73-68, at the Smith Center. Garino and Wake Forest transfer Tyler Cavanaugh both finished with 18 points, but it was Larsen who turned in the most valuable nine-point, seven-board, five-assist stat line that you’ll ever see.
Virginia head coach Tony Bennett runs the Pack-Line defense that his father founded. It’s tough, it’s physical and its core tenets are to eliminate paint touches; no penetration and no post-ups. In order to get the ball out of a post player’s hands, they double-team hard and they double-team immediately. Larsen knew the trap was coming this year just like he knew it was coming last year. The difference was on Monday night, when he passed out of the double-team, the ball ended up in the hands of an open teammate instead of the third row.
“We want Kevin to get double-teamed,” GW head coach Mike Lonergan said after the win. “Last year, he got nervous and threw the ball all over the gym. But he’s the best passing big man I’ve ever coached.”
That showed in the first half, as Larsen twice set up Cavanaugh dunks and twice found point guard Joe McDonald for open threes. Larsen’s passing — and Virginia’s ineffectiveness rotating — forced the Cavs to do something that they almost never do: They changed their defense.
They stopped double-teaming the post.
That opened up scoring chances for Larsen on the block, which softened UVA’s defense, boosted GW’s confidence, created driving lanes and opened up opportunities for second-chance points.
“They hurt us in the post-trap and when we didn’t post-trap they hurt us,” Bennett said. “We got outplayed and out-executed.”
Virginia only led for a grand total of 46 seconds in the second half, with Garino providing the answer both times the ‘Hoos pulled ahead. With 12:45 left, he answered a London Perrantes three with a three of his own. Four minutes later, after Evan Nolte hit a go-ahead three, Garino responded with a driving and-one layup. That bucket would spark a 10-0 in which Garino scored seven of the points.
Virginia never got closer than four after that.
It was a statement win for the Colonials, one that, on paper, makes them look like the favorite to win the Atlantic 10 this season. Think about it. Rhode Island lost E.C. Matthews for the season. Dayton is still waiting on Dyshawn Pierre to return. Davidson is Davidson, but they were taken to the brink at home by a Central Florida team that is not going to contend in the American.
George Washington just beat the team that has won back-to-back ACC titles.
I’ll take it one step further: this win gets George Washington into the NCAA tournament.
That’s a ridiculous thing to say at this point in the season. I’m not even going to pretend that it’s not.
But let’s assume that the Colonials do what we expect them to do the rest of the year. Win 20-something games. Defend their home court against the likes of Seton Hall, Tennessee, Rutgers and, in league play, Davidson, VCU and Rhode Island. Avoid too many of those pesky road losses that always pop-up in the throes of conference play. Finish around 13-5 in the Atlantic 10, somewhere in the top four.
That’s a resume that is going to get them on the bubble.
But with this win?
A win over a top ten team, a team that, in all likelihood, is going to be in the thick of the ACC race?
That’s the difference-maker. One marquee can be the difference between a No. 10 seed and a trip to the NIT.
GW got their’s before the season was a week-old.