by David Elfin

George Washington was already having its best season in seven years before Tuesday’s night game with 2011 Final Four participant Virginia Commonwealth. However, the Colonials’ biggest victories had all come away from Smith Center, their cozy, on-campus arena. GW beat defending ACC champion Miami and No. 20 Creighton in a tournament in California and Maryland at Verizon Center.

Last February when GW welcomed 2010/2011 national finalist Butler to Smith Center, the building was rocking the way it was Tuesday night, but the Colonials fell short, losing 59-56. A week later, they traveled to VCU and got rocked, 84-57.

So this game against VCU was a measuring stick for coach Mike Lonergan and his Colonials, in part because LaSalle, which beat GW in Philadelphia last Thursday, would be the only other quality opponent due in during the next month.

“I saw their Maryland game [and I was] very impressed,” said Notre Dame coach Mike Brey, who praised fellow area native Lonergan before being inducted into his alma mater’s Athletic Hall of Fame the night before his Fighting Irish visited Maryland. “They’ve got a great confidence about them. You’ve got a confident team that has won and played in big games. They feel they should get this one.”

GW did get it, 76-66, thanks largely to sophomores Kevin Larsen and Patricio Garino, who scored career-highs of 22 and 25 points, respectively. The smooth big man from Denmark and the defensive wizard from Argentina combined to hit 17 of 25 shots on a night that their teammates shot 10 for 23 and VCU was 25 of 68. With senior Isaiah Armwood collecting 14 rebounds (twice as many as anyone else on either team), the Colonials dominated the boards 45-29, allowing them to overcome 21 turnovers against VCU’s trademark “Havoc” press.

“This is a big win for us,” said Lonergan, no longer as frenetic as he had been amid the din of sold-out 4,874-seat Smith Center. “They’re picked to win the league and were nationally ranked at the beginning of the year. We’re trying to earn respect. We feel that this program has a foundation now. We want to fight to get to the NCAA Tournament. We’re trying to work on our resume.”

That resume now includes a 14-3 record, one more victory than GW won all of last season and four more than it managed during Lonergan’s 2011-12 debut. Only No. 18 Massachusetts, No. 24 St. Louis and LaSalle are ahead of GW in the Atlantic 10 standings. The rematch with LaSalle on Jan. 29 and a visit to Dayton three days later should be the Colonials’ only major tests until they travel to VCU, Richmond and St. Louis and play host to UMass during a grueling 11-day span next month that runs from Lincoln’s Birthday to Washington’s Birthday.

If GW can even split those six games, its first NCAA bid in seven years appears very realistic.

“This is why I came to GW,” Lonergan said of the atmosphere. “This is a hard city to draw [fans because of all the other pro and major college sports teams]. Tonight, to pack the place, that’s really the way we want it every game. We’re trying to go undefeated at home. We can reach all of our goals if we [do].”

VCU coach Shaka Smart won’t be surprised if that happens.

“Individually, [Larsen, Garino and sophomore guards Joe McDonald and Kethan Savage] have gotten better,” Smart said. “And they’re so much more confident. The confidence is probably as important, or more important, than the skill development. Larsen, what he did in the first half, really put us on our heels. He hurt us in a lot of different ways. And probably the biggest difference-maker was Garino. He was an absolute sparkplug for them coming off the bench.”

At halftime, the 6-foot-10, 264-pound Larsen had tied his career-high with 17 points, just two fewer than the rest of his teammates combined, and had hit seven of his eight shots as the Colonials took a 36-29 lead into the break.

Larsen said that he was looking forward to avenging last year’s outing when Rams big man Juvonte Reddic dominated him for 23 points and 10 rebounds.

“Kevin set the tone early,” Lonergan said of Larsen, who scored all three of the Colonials’ buckets during the first five minutes. “When he plays well, especially offensively, we’re a different team.”

In the second half, the 6-5, 203-pound Garino scored 18 points, 50 percent more than he had put home in any of his previous nine games this season, having missed seven with a broken finger.

“I think we’re growing up as players and as a team,” Garino said. “We’re not freshmen anymore.”

No, they’re not. And they’re also now the area’s best team, apologies to Georgetown, Maryland and new A-10 rival George Mason.

David Elfin began writing about sports when he was a junior at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School. He is Washington’s representative on the Pro Football Hall of Fame selection committee and the author of seven books, most recently, “Washington Redskins: The Complete Illustrated History.” A pre-game regular on 106.7-The Fan the last three Redskins seasons, he has been its columnist since March 2011.


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