- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 15, 2005

In most years, 20-plus victories, a couple of wins over nationally ranked teams and a berth in the Atlantic 10 tournament title game would mean an NCAA berth was a lock.

George Washington’s players understood it was anything but Saturday night as they took the floor to face Saint Joseph’s. With a relatively low RPI and a poor performance by the league overall this year, nothing was guaranteed.

“That was our mind-set,” point guard T.J. Thompson said. “We didn’t want to leave our fate in anyone else’s hands. The best way to do that was to go out and win.”

Which the Colonials did. GW earned the league’s automatic — and only — bid by claiming their first conference title in 29 tries. The 76-67 win over the Hawks guaranteed the Colonials their first NCAA appearance since 1999.

And as it turned out, GW (22-7) probably would not have gotten in otherwise. The Colonials are the 12th seed in the Albuquerque regional and will play their first-round game Friday against No. 5 Georgia Tech in Nashville, Tenn. No at-large team was seeded lower than 11th.

The Colonials thrive through speed and versatility. While 6-foot-9 Pops Mensah-Bonsu might be GW’s most recognizable name, he only ranks third on the team in scoring (12.6) and second in rebounding (6.6). Thompson, with a team-high 13.8 points a game, is one of six players averaging at least 8.1 points. In fact, guard J.R. Pinnock, the team’s sixth man, is its second-leading scorer at 13.5.

“The first thing that jumps out to me is their balance,” Saint Joseph’s coach Phil Martelli said. “I was asked by ESPN going into the game, ‘Who would you shut down?’ I don’t know. I really don’t. I think Mike Hall is a marvelous player. T.J. Thompson is a senior. [J.R.] Pinnock coming off the bench gives them a dimension other teams don’t have.”

That the Colonials wound up in such a precarious position would have been unthinkable earlier in the season. GW beat then-No. 11 Michigan State 95-82 and then-No. 12 Maryland 101-92 to win the BB&T; Classic at MCI Center in December. Those victories catapulted the Colonials into the Top 25, and they seemed prepared to cruise through conference play in a weaker-than-usual A-10.

“It was a confidence booster that our hard work had paid off and we can play with the top teams,” said Hall, a 6-foot-8 junior who averaged a team-high 8.0 rebounds. “It was a continuous reminder that if we continue to play hard we will have positive results.”

Only the results early in A-10 play were decidedly mixed. The Colonials, the preseason favorites to win the A-10 West, lost three out of four in January, including games at home to Massachusetts in overtime and to Xavier on a buzzer-beating 3-pointer. All of a sudden, GW fell to 4-3 in conference play.

“Suddenly, after we won the BB&T;, teams were playing great basketball against us,” coach Karl Hobbs said. “And we weren’t rising to the level we needed to. Even I was making excuses. ‘Why are these teams playing so well against us? All of a sudden against GW, they are playing like world-beaters.’ Dayton comes in our building and shoots [64 percent from 3-point range] in the first half. It’s unheard of.”

The Colonials’ 82-73 win over the Flyers, who made nine of 14 3s in the first half, seemed to right the Colonials, who won five games in a row and improved to 17-5 overall and 9-3 in the A-10. But two blowouts — a 19-point loss at Xavier and a 15-point loss to Saint Joseph’s in their home finale — suggested they were NIT bound.

“They were poised when they needed to get a big shot,” Hobbs said after the loss to the Hawks. “We did the things young teams do. We got a little overexcited. At times we panicked when they got a big lead.”

The Colonials managed to clinch the A-10 West title at Rhode Island in the final regular-season game, earning one of the two No. 1 seeds for the conference tournament. They blew out Fordham and Temple to set up the historic title win over Saint Joseph’s. Thompson keyed a late 12-point run against the Hawks, while guard Omar Williams led the team with 20 points.

“I am so happy for these players,” Hobbs said. “These guys worked so hard under the cloud of high expectations throughout the year — expectations that I thought to some degree were unfair. But you can’t whine and cry about it. You just have to respond. And we did.”

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