- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 13, 2007

In a mere 48 hours, George Washington turned the forgettable into something remarkable.

The Colonials arrived in Atlantic City, N.J., last weekend as a team few expected to make a run at the Atlantic 10 tournament championship and its accompanying NCAA tournament bid.

The Colonials were seeded third. They had no compelling victories to speak of, and they had lost four straight at the beginning of February. Regular season co-champions Xavier and Massachusetts were expected to battle it out for the A-10 crown.

On Saturday night, however, neither the Musketeers nor Minutemen were cutting down the nets in Boardwalk Hall. Rather, the Colonials hoisted the trophy after a victory in the title game that also gave them a program-record third consecutive trip to the NCAA tournament — a scenario that seemed remote just two days earlier.

“It was crazy,” forward Regis Koundjia said. “But we won it, so it was great.”

The Colonials, who won eight straight to end the season, drew the 11th seed in the East Region and face No. 6 Vanderbilt on Thursday in Sacramento, Calif.

The Colonials’ uprising actually did not begin last week on the shores of the Atlantic Ocean but several weeks earlier in the District.

GW had lost four straight games and was in freefall in the league standings. The third of those defeats was a 29-point blowout to Xavier on Feb. 10, a loss that also ended the Colonials’ 24-game home winning streak.

“That loss to Xavier put a lot of things in perspective,” senior guard Carl Elliott said. “That rattled particularly the young guys on the team. And for those of us who had been here a while, it was a new experience because we weren’t used to losing. We had to change something fast because there wasn’t much time left in the season.”

The Colonials lost their next game at Saint Joseph’s but three days later defeated Temple 84-72 to begin the unbeaten streak that would carry them back to the NCAA tournament.

With a renewed emphasis on rebounding and defense, Elliott registered the first triple-double (17 points, 12 rebounds, 10 assists) in program history against the Owls. The Colonials became much more physical.

“After that four-game losing streak, we could have quit,” said center Dokun Akingbade, who had only one rebound in 24 minutes in a loss to Saint Louis during the skid. “But we came together as a team and really focused on the little things.”

Akingbade has become much more aggressive on the boards and has developed into an inside scorer. The 6-foot-9, 220-pound senior delivered his best game with the Colonials in the tournament final, scoring 15 points and grabbing nine rebounds.

Elliott and guard Maureece Rice began to crash the boards relentlessly. And two freshmen, guard Travis King and 6-foot-8 forward Damian Hollis, gave GW some much-needed depth for its nonstop running-and-pressing style.

“We had whole practices where all we did was boxing-out drills and drills on defense,” said Elliott, the only returning starter from last season’s 27-3 team. “Coach [Karl Hobbs] is always a maniac, especially when we lose, but he was even a little worse. He screamed and yelled and some guys got rattled. And they responded.”

Though the end result was thrilling, the A-10 tournament was not particularly dramatic for the Colonials. There were no game-winning shots or spectacular comebacks. GW was in control throughout its 58-48 first-round win over Saint Joseph’s.

The Colonials then blitzed Saint Louis, allowing only 16 first-half points and a tournament-record low total for a game in their 60-40 victory. The defense forced 20 turnovers, and the offense outscored Saint Louis 36-12 in the paint. The Colonials’ fullcourt pressure and ball-hawking zone defense made quick work of a tired Billikens team that entered as the seventh seed.

“It was important for us to pretty much pressure them the whole game,” Hobbs said. “We went in at halftime, and we told the guys, ‘Don’t worry about your offense. What we want to do is just wear them down.’ ”

Rice was well on his way to being named tournament MVP with a 22-point performance on 9-for-14 shooting. Elliott contributed five of the Colonials’ 10 steals as they overcame a poor shooting night to cruise to the championship game.

The victory marked the second time the Colonials beat a team they lost to during the season. As Rice said in the huddle before the Saint Joseph’s game, “It’s not about the setback, but the get back.”

That phrase turned into the team’s mantra.

The Colonials didn’t get a chance to avenge their loss to Xavier, thanks to an upset of the Musketeers by fourth-seeded Rhode Island.

“We were a little disappointed not to play Xavier,” Elliott said. “It didn’t really matter through. We were playing for the ‘ship.”

The championship turned out to be a rugged battle. GW faced adversity early as Diggs went down after getting elbowed in the face and played only six minutes, and Koundjia got in foul trouble and was disqualified with 8:24 left.

However, Akingbade became an aggressor and nearly got into a scuffle after delivering a hard foul to stop a layup.

“A lot of guys were in foul trouble,” said Akingbade, who hit seven of nine shots. “There was just a lot of banging. We knew we couldn’t back down from that and had to overcome it together.”

GW led throughout and limited each Rams run. Rhode Island cut an 11-point deficit to 68-64 on Keith Cothran’s jumper with 2:57 left. That’s when Elliott took over.

The savvy senior penetrated and drew the double-team before feeding Akingbade for an open layup. Elliott then made a steal and Rice went to the line and hit both free throws to make it an eight-point lead as the Colonials fought off the Rams’ final rally.

“We put it all together and came away with the A-10 championship,” Elliott said. “This one is sweeter because of all the people who doubted us. They said it would be a rebuilding year. To come out and win the Atlantic 10 with a bunch of young guys is great. I love it.”

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