- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 22, 2006

For those who believe in portents, George Washington should have played very good basketball last night against La Salle. After all, the date was Feb. 22, which we used to observe as the birthday of the Father of Our Country.

Forget it, at least momentarily.

The Colonials were down by four points at intermission and seven early in the second half, leaving the nation’s longest winning streak in apparent jeopardy. It would have been fun to eavesdrop on coach Karl Hobbs’ locker room remarks to his troops. Presumably, compliments were not part of the discussion.

Even worse, leading scorer Pops Mensah-Bonsu — he of the intriguing name and 6-foot-9 frame — went down just before the break with a twisted left knee and was not available in the second half.

No problem, as it turned out. Despite playing one of their lesser games, GW spurted in the second for a 77-65 victory that kept all their dreams working. Don’t ask me how. Let’s just admire the Colonials’ school-record 15-game run of success and wish them well in the postseason.

This sort of thing has been unheard of in Foggy Bottom for far too long. For years and years, there were two mostly notable things about GW basketball.

First and foremost, Red Auerbach played there before he was Red Auerbach.

Then there was the Colonials’ ludicrous and laughable mascot, which featured an enormous papier mache Gilbert Stuart head perched on a tiny body. Gil’s descendants should have sued.

Oh, once in a while, GW would catch Maryland, Georgetown or some other biggie napping. The school had some nice players like Walt Szczerbiak (Wally’s dad), Jon Feldman, Mike Brown and Ronnie Nunn. Others arrived in neat family packages like the Holups (Joe and John) and the Tallents (Bob, Pat and Mike).

When it came to winning, though, the Colonials weren’t always successful. Bill Reinhart turned out some strong teams during his 23 seasons, but most successors labored at least for a while. John Kuester went 1-27 in a 1988-89 season nobody wants to remember. Mike Jarvis had the program headed upward before he bolted to St. John’s in 1998. Tom Penders resigned under pressure in 2001 following whispers of various nefarious deeds.

During his farewell press conference, Penders insisted he was leaving because he needed to take “a sabbatical.” Said one skeptical observer: “Unlike George Washington [the man, not the school], I guess that means he can tell a lie.”

This season, as we have seen, everything has changed astonishingly.

After last night’s uninspiring triumph, GW is a snappy 23-1 and ranked sixth — make that sixth! — in the Associated Press Top 25. Georgetown is 23rd, and even George Mason slipped into 25th place in the ESPN rankings. This winter, you might say, the Georges are gorgeous.

Meanwhile, struggling Maryland is unranked and no better than fourth in the area’s college hoops pecking order at the moment. Eat your heart out, Gary Williams.

In the past, GW has had trouble filling 30-year-old, 5,000-seat Smith Center. You could call the place an on-campus facility, except the school has no campus — at least not one that isn’t cement. But if Hobbs and his troops keep the ball rolling next season, the Colonials could turn up at MCI Center for more and more games.

As a longtime basketball coach and athletic director, Jack Kvancz should be taking all this in stride — but he isn’t, of course. Jack deserves a hand, too, because he’s the guy who hired Hobbs to rebuild a program that hadn’t won a game in the NCAA tournament since 1994. Mission accomplished, if not necessarily finished. Hobbs is 63-21 over the last two-plus seasons and on the way to a second consecutive Atlantic 10 championship.

“What’s happened this season is unbelievable,” Kvancz says. “There’s a lot more bounce in everyone’s step these days. And the special thing is that the players have been totally accepted by the student body. They see them in class, walking down the hall — the players aren’t isolated here.”

Senior forward Mensah-Bonsu says that when he used to walk around school he might go unrecognized — remarkable in itself considering he approaches 7 feet and 240 pounds. “Now everyone is saying ‘hi’ or ‘congratulations,’ ” he marvels. “They are thanking us, and it’s overwhelming for someone to thank us for doing the thing we love.”

And do so well, except for those first 20 minutes last night. But you can bet nobody’s complaining.

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