- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Around this time of year, it is hard for Tyler Cavanaugh to ignore the obvious.

The NCAA tournament is still roughly five weeks away, but George Washington is creeping back into the 68-team conversation after last Saturday’s 72-69 win at VCU, snapping the Rams’ 12-game winning streak — the second longest in the nation.

Whether Cavanaugh, George Washington’s 6-foot-9 redshirt junior forward, is watching other games or just simply killing time on social media, the talk of the Colonials’ three-game winning streak and recent surge is hard to tune out.

For Cavanaugh, who transferred to the Colonials from Wake Forrest, the experience has been refreshing. In two seasons, Cavanaugh and the Demon Deacons lived closer to the bottom of the ACC standings than the top.

“It’s a new position for me,” said Cavanaugh, who is averaging 16.6 points and 7.6 rebounds per game. “I’ve never been in the conference running or the race for an NCAA tournament, so it’s fun to just watch games and know you could be facing one of those teams.”

As fun as it has been, Cavanaugh understands the importance of reshaping his focus, especially with the Colonials (18-5, 7-3 Atlantic 10) hosting conference opponent Saint Joseph’s (19-4, 8-2 A10) on Wednesday.

Cavanaugh was on campus, but not on the court last season — he had to sit out because of NCAA transfer requirements — and endured the crushing feeling that followed after the Colonials lost seven of nine games in a grueling stretch from the end of January through February.

After winning four consecutive games, that treacherous losing streak all but guaranteed George Washington would not receive an at-large bid.

Now, with George Washington sitting fourth in the Atlantic 10 and eight regular-season games remaining, coach Mike Lonergan and the Colonials are trying to avoid that same fate.

Lonergan, who led the Colonials to 24-9 record and NCAA tournament appearance after the 2012-13 season, candidly admitted that he needs to be the one to guide the team’s focus.

“I haven’t done a great job the last couple of years, but we’ve got to stay focused,” Lonergan said. “You can’t listen to the noise, all the bubble stuff. We take care of business and we’re in great shape. We’ve just got to keep getting better. Defensively, we weren’t a good team a few weeks ago. Now we’re playing much better team defense. We’re capable, but I’ve had trouble getting these guys to focus on how important defense was.”

That was never more painfully obvious this season than after the Colonials’ 98-90 double-overtime loss to Richmond on Jan. 28. The Spiders shot 60 percent and Marshall Wood drained seven of eight 3-point attempts, all after Lonergan spent the week emphasizing Richmond’s ability to shoot the ball well.

“We knew exactly what they were going to do and they still did it,” Lonergan said.

The Colonials know that can’t be the case on Wednesday against Saint Joseph’s, which enters third in the Atlantic 10. The Hawks have a pair of dynamic forwards in Isaiah Miles and DeAndre Bembry, who average 17.3 and 17.0 points per game, respectively.

George Washington is averaging 75.8 points per game, production that Lonergan said is arguably the best he’s had in his five seasons at the helm. The challenge continues to be getting the best effort from his team on defense.

“We’re not a big shot-blocking team, but we should be able to rotate and clog the lane, do some things we hadn’t been doing before,” Lonergan said. “We show them on film, guys that get out of the way instead of helping their teammates. We’ve been playing the right way [recently] and our guys realize it, but it can’t be two or three guys that are playing defense. It’s got to be all five guys on the court. It starts with our starters. They know what is at stake and I’m really happy with where they’re at right now. We’re in a better position than we were a month ago.”

During this critical stretch, the Colonials will rely heavily on their three seniors, especially guard Patricio Garino, who scored a career-high 27 points in the win against VCU. Garino, who stands at 6-foot-6, has greatly improved his three-point shooting this season. He’s made 47 percent of his attempts, up from 30 percent last season, which has made it easier for him to get to the basket with defenders now having to respect his range.

Garino has the confidence to be the Colonials’ go-to scorer late in the game, a quality the team has lacked in recent seasons.

More importantly, Garino, who has started 102 of 114 career games, has the leadership to help guide the team in this final stretch. Lonergan was most disappointed that his team did not improve last February and Garino is ready to make sure that doesn’t happen again.

“We’re really aware this is the last stretch we have, especially thinking of last February, we screwed that up for ourselves,” Garino said. “I think momentum is on our side. Definitely our confidence is higher than ever. We just need to deal with the success right now and not get too high into our wins.”

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