FAIRFAX -- All losses sting, but some are more upsetting than others. George Washington dealt with that specific pain twice earlier in January, hurting its Atlantic 10 title and NCAA Tournament hopes in the process. Despite sporting a far more veteran group than George Mason's freshman-heavy lineup, the Colonials nearly experienced another setback against a team down in the conference standings.
Good thing their leaders didn't allow yet another unsettling defeat.
Patricio Garino scored 19 points and Tyler Cavanaugh had 15 as George Washington fended off George Mason 76-70 Sunday afternoon at Eagle Bank Arena.
Following a strong non-conference performance, the Colonials (16-5, 5-3) appeared poised for a run at the A-10 regular season title. Then came losses to two teams in the bottom half of the conference standings, at St. Louis and home against Richmond. Those setbacks alone wouldn't doom various postseason dreams. Tacking on a loss to a seven-win team might.
So when the Colonials blew a 10-point second half lead and trailed the Patriots 61-59 with 4:48 remaining, anxiety for Foggy Bottom program increased. Eventually, GW closed the first "Revolutionary Rivalry" meeting of the season with a 17-9 run over the final 3:14 for its fifth straight win over George Mason (7-14, 1-7).
"Thank god we're experienced," a relieved George Washington coach Mike Lonergan said, deftly summarizing why his side didn't lose for the third time in four games. During the lone victory in that span, 62-58 over Rhode Island at the start of the area's snowmageddon, GW trailed by double figures before rallying.
"This is a loss that could really hurt you, a road loss against a team that doesn't have a great RPI," Lonergan said. "This was really needed.
The coach continued, passionately explaining his message to the team.
"I just need you guys to look in the mirror and seize this opportunity. We've worked so hard, [wins over] Seton Hall, Penn State, Rutgers, Virginia, Tennessee. We've got a lot of quality wins. We've got an opportunity to get more," he said.
"Our seniors, for them I told them you have the rest of your life. You don't want to have any regrets when you're my age. If we're not good enough to make the NCAA's or NIT, that's fine, but we have to go down swinging. We just don't feel like where we should be at with our experience and talent level."
The Colonials survived despite shooting 32.8 percent from the field and Patriots guard Otis Livingston dazzling throughout. Senior center Kevin Larsen, one of four upperclassmen in the Colonials starting lineup, had 10 points and 11 rebounds.
However, points from the free throw line are helpful. For the Colonials, they became life saving. GW sank 30 of 36 overall with 13 of its final 17 points coming on free throws including two from Larsen for a 63-61 lead with 2:29 remaining. The senior center missed 10 of 13 shots, but his putback and Garino's layup on their next two possessions finally gave the Colonials needed space, space they maintained this time.
"It definitely means a lot," Garino said of GW's experience. "We're not rushing anything. We're not getting nervous. We have the confidence. We know we've been in this situation so many times.
Livingston, one of three freshman starters, continued his impressive season with 18 points and seven assists with zero turnovers for the Patriots. He fed teammates for interior scores on consecutive baskets including a dazzling behind the back to DeAndre Abram for a fast break dunk as Mason surged from down 10 into the lead.
Both teams equally clanked their way through the first half, shooting a combined 18 for 69 from the field. George Washington's misfiring became pronounced late. The Colonials were scoreless for 5:07 until sinking two free throws with 0.5 seconds remaining. By that point, the Patriots pulled ahead and entered halftime leading 31-29.
"We're getting better," George Mason coach Dave Paulsen said. "It's disappointing for our guys not be rewarded. Down the stretch, that's where a veteran team at GW made all the plays and we came up a little short."
With 10 games remaining, the Colonials are heading toward the final stretch of the regular season. This is when experience from years of hardwood battles helps. At least that's what their coach hopes.