NEW YORK (AP) - For the first time in a few years, an Atlantic 10 tournament loss won’t mark the end of George Washington’s season.
The Colonials wilted down the stretch against No. 23 VCU, losing 74-55 in the conference semifinals on Saturday, but can look forward to playing in the NCAA tournament for the first time in seven years.
George Washington (24-8) has already exceeded its win total (23) for the last two years combined.
“We just don’t want to make the tournament, if there is ever a year that you can advance hopefully this will be the year,” third-year coach Mike Lonergan said. “I think we’ll be refocused and play a lot better next Thursday.”
The second-seeded Rams (26-7) will play for the A-10 title for the second year in a row, facing fourth-seeded St. Joseph’s on Sunday. Coach Shaka Smart, who became the program’s winningest coach with No. 137, has led the Rams to a conference tournament final in four of his five seasons, first in the Colonial Athletic Association and the past two in the A-10.
Treveon Graham scored 22 points and Briante Weber added 16 points for the Rams, who lost last year’s final to Saint Louis.
Isaiah Armwood led third-seeded George Washington with 15 points.
VCU will move on without A-10 sixth man of the year Melvin Johnson, who injured his knee early in the first half.
George Washington was able to counter VCU’s “Havoc” full-court pressure for a while with strong inside play from Armwood (5-for-7 shooting) and Kevin Larsen (10 points).
At least for a while.
“We struggled to get them the ball,” Lonergan said. “They’re not really respecting some of our guys that are shooters and they’re kind backing off which was a smart thing to do and it’s really difficult to get the ball inside because of their defense and we wanted to go inside more.
“I think we got tired too. … Some bad shots and turnovers got it really going.”
VCU forced 15 turnovers and had seven steals, below its nation’s best season average, but the Rams made up for it by shooting better than usual from the outside against GW’s 1-3-1 zone and outrebounding GW (37-28).
Graham was 4 for 6 from 3-point range and Rob Brandenberg was 3 for 6.
Weber made a 3 from the corner to put VCU up 50-45 with 10:30 left and the Rams came up with a steal to break up a George Washington two-on-one at the other end. VCU fans love their team’s defense and hustle and that play got the “V-C-U!” chant cranking at Barclays Center.
A block by Alie-Cox on Larsen triggered a VCU break and Graham finished it with a 3 from up top that made the score 60-51 with 5:37 left, prompting a timeout from GW.
Alie-Cox then got into it on the offensive end, tipping in a miss in traffic to make the lead 64-53 with 4:20 left.
Colonials point guard Joe McDonald fouled out with 3:03 left and GW down nine. Facing “Havoc” without its most reliable ball-handler, GW faded.
VCU promptly forced a turnover, Alie-Cox flipped in a one-hander to make it 68-55 with 2:46 left.
Johnson was hurt during a scramble for a loose ball and had to be helped off the court by two team staffers. He returned to the bench in the second half with a full leg brace and crutches.
“When Melvin went out with the injury it really hit us because he’s a great player,” Graham said. “We wanted to really bounce back and get this one for him.”
Shortly after Johnson left, Kethan Savage entered for George Washington. The sophomore and team’s second-leading scorer had been out since Jan. 18 with a broken foot. Savage wasn’t out there long. He played one minute.
For the second straight game, Nemanja Mikic gave George Washington a boost off the bench with three first-half 3-pointers. Mikic, who came into the semifinals averaging 4.7 points, scored 14 in the Colonials’ victory Friday against Massachusetts.
The last few minutes of the first half were played at VCU’s frenetic pace, with the Rams’ black-and-gold clad fans making Barclays Center sound like the Siegel Center in Richmond.
Armwood’s three-point play with 8 seconds left gave George Washington a one-point lead and quieted the Rams faithful, but Brandenberg’s corner 3 as time winded down sent the Rams to the break up 33-31 to a “V-C-U!” chant.
“It was the turning point in the game in that It wasn’t necessarily them making us turn the ball over, we just made some uncharacteristic turnovers and they took taking the lead going into halftime and that continued in the second half,” Armwood said.
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