For the first time in four years, the George Washington Colonials welcomed a power conference opponent to the Charles E. Smith Center on Saturday.
Rowdy students in buff T-shirts packed the student section for the school's annual BUFF OUT game. The band, perched on the upper deck, belted out tunes throughout the afternoon. But after Dwayne Smith's three-pointer ricocheted off the rim at the buzzer, the place went quiet.
The Colonials took the court against Kansas State searching for a signature win under second-year head coach Mike Lonergan. And they left it empty-handed, still searching, after a 65-62 loss in a thrilling, back-and-forth affair.
"It was a lot of fun," Lonergan said of the atmosphere. "It just makes it even more disappointing that we were right there and I thought we had a golden opportunity to get a really big win for our program."
Four Colonials scored in double figures, led by senior forward Dwayne Smith's 14 points off the bench, but George Washington simply couldn't hang on in the game's closing minutes. Kansas State point guard Angel Rodriguez calmly drained a step-back jumper with 1:02 left on the clock, two of his game-high 17 points, and Will Spradling hit two clutch free throws to cement a victory in the Wildcats' first true road game of the season.
For Lonergan, the bright side is defense. Senior Isaiah Armwood had a whopping seven blocks to go along with 12 points and 10 rebounds, and the Colonials held Kansas State to just 35.7 percent shooting on the afternoon.
"If you told me we were going to hold them to 35 percent shooting, I thought we could win the game," he said after his team fell to 4-5 on the season. "Our defense was great. We just gave them too many second shot opportunities. The first three plays, they had tip-ins to start the game."
Some teams show a new-found intensity when playing in front of a strong home crowd, and George Washington is certainly one of them. With a season-high 3,570 fans in attendance, the Colonials came out with as much energy as they've had all season, jumping out to an early 4-2 advantage and holding on to that lead for the rest of the half.
Each of Armwood's four first half blocks was answered with a roar from the Smith Center.
"As a coach, you know that you're walking into a tough environment. But I'm not sure the kids understood it," Kansas State coach Bruce Weber said. "We talk about a magic level – [the Colonials] were playing at a magic level."
But the Wildcats stayed within arm's reach, taking a two-point deficit into halftime and seizing the lead shortly after the break. Spradling scored eight points in a two-minute stretch, and Kansas State continued to gash George Washington on the offensive glass. The Wildcats finished with 24 offensive rebounds and won the battle of the boards 46-36.
The two teams exchanged blows and kept the game close until the very end, when Kansas State's poise finally won out. Rodriguez was fouled on a three-point attempt and converted all three free throws. Then he hit a cold-blooded jumper to which Smith and the Colonials had no answer.
"It was an open look and a well written-up play," Smith said of the game's final shot. "It just didn't go in."
Somewhere down the line, when the sting of the loss has worn off, George Washington will be able to look at this game and draw some positives. The program hosted a power conference opponent at the Smith Center for the first time since November 28, 2009, when it fell to Oregon State 64-57, and wound up only inches away from the victory.
"Nobody's disappointed in the effort, in the effort that me and my teammates gave," Armwood said. "There were just a whole bunch of plays that we could pick up and we could've done better. We've just got to go back in practice and execute."
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