The most memorable part of Wednesday night's luau thrown for participants in the Diamond Head Classic was George Washington coach Mike Lonergan donning a coconut bra and grass skirt, jumping on stage and performing a hula dance.
The way his team performed in Thursday's tournament title game, Lonergan probably had to resist the urge to dance a second straight night.
George Washington notched its most impressive win of the season, defeating 11th-ranked Wichita State 60-54 to win an in-season tournament for the first time in a decade. The Shockers have come back to win several games this season, but the Colonials did it at Wichita State's expense Thursday night, finishing the game on a 20-6 surge thanks to a strategic move Lonergan made in the second half.
With his team struggling to defend Wichita State's ball screen action, Lonergan switched to the 1-3-1 zone that sparked George Washington's semifinal victory over Colorado two nights earlier. The effect was similar as the Shockers committed four turnovers in the final eight minutes and struggled to figure out how to attack the zone even when they took care of the ball.
Two steals by Kethan Savage sparked the George Washington comeback. He swiped careless passes by Darius Carter and Tekele Cotton and turned both into transition layups, trimming an eight-point deficit to one and forcing a rare timeout from Gregg Marshall with just over five minutes to play.
The timeout didn't help. Wichita State committed a shot-clock violation on its ensuing possession, George Washington freshman Yuta Watanabe gave his team the lead with a 3-pointer just over a minute later and the Colonials did not relinquish it the rest of the way. Savage led a balanced George Washington attack with 12 points, while Wichita State leading scorers Ron Baker, Fred VanVleet, Carter and Cotton shot a combined 14 of 45.
George Washington's victory was the ideal Christmas present for Colonials fans eager to see their team return to the NCAA tournament for a second straight season. There was pressure on George Washington to perform well in Hawaii after falling to the best three teams they had faced prior to the tournament, and the Colonials came through, pounding Ohio in the quarterfinals and notching quality wins against Colorado and Wichita State to improve to 9-3 so far this season.
The success of the Colonials was important too for the Atlantic 10, which has enjoyed little non-league success this season after sending six teams to the NCAA tournament last March. Three big wins from George Washington puts Lonergan's team in as good a position as anyone besides league favorite VCU entering the start of Atlantic 10 play.
If Thursday's outcome proved that George Washington is still a contender in the Atlantic 10, it also offered further evidence Wichita State is not the juggernaut it was a year ago.
A Shockers team that did not lose a game until the NCAA tournament last season has now lost twice this year and has narrowly escaped losses against Alabama and Hawaii, among others. In particular, Wichita State isn't big in the paint and misses the scoring, rebounding and versatility of Cleanthony Early, who helped take pressure off VanVleet and Baker last season.
Nonetheless, beating Wichita State is a profile-enhancing win for George Washington.
The Colonials coach danced Wednesday night. Now his team has a much better chance of dancing too this March.
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