The standard line from coaches to their players about the schedule is along the lines of treat each game with respect. Ultimately, each counts equally in the standings in terms of pure wins and losses. The results, however, are not always equal. Some stand out and not just in the moment. For example, George Washington defeating No. 6 Virginia.
"This is definitely memorable for life," senior guard Patricio Garino said shortly after the Colonials' 73-68 win over the Cavaliers Monday night at Smith Center.
The result, while an upset, wasn't a stunner. Certainly not to the Colonials (2-0), who are coming off back-to-back seasons with 20 wins and postseason appearances including the 2014 NCAA Tournament. But memorable, absolutely. It's not every day GW hosts a national power. Actually, that's rarer than beating a ranked team, which the Colonials have now done in three straight seasons.
"This was special," said George Washington coach Mike Lonergan, whose resume includes a 2001 Division III national title at Catholic.
"You've got to take advantage of those opportunities we don't get very often," Lonergan said. "Sure, I wish Maryland would play us. I wish Georgetown would play us. I give all the credit to [Virginia coach Tony Bennett]."
Bennett and the Cavaliers (1-1) made the trip north for rematch after beating GW 59-42 in Charlottesville last season. With the goal of a third straight ACC regular season title and NCAA Tournament in mind, Bennett put together a challenging schedule. Despite the loss, he claimed no regret while offering praise to the home team
"What a college basketball atmosphere," Bennett said of the raucous and sold out Smith Center. "They outplayed. They deserved it. ...Mike does a real good job coaching those guys. Those kids came to play."
Garino's two-way play and persistent presence fueled the effort along with deft passing from center Kevin Larsen. Memories from last season's loss helped as well. George Washington led 26-22 at halftime before caving in against Virginia's relentless defensive pressure.
Once again, the Colonials entered the halftime ahead, this time 35-32 despite opening the game with three turnovers on their first three possessions. Down 6-0, GW pulled ahead with a 13-4 run. Other than a brief spell when Virginia jumped in front in the second half, GW maintained control of the game and its own attitude.
"We were more aggressive," Garino said of the change in play. "Last year we were soft. Obviously, the home court advantage helps a lot. We owe a lot to the fans."
If someone is doling out credit for the win, give a large chunk to Garino, who scored 14 of his 18 points in the second half.
Over one second half stretch, during which Virginia took a brief 55-54 lead on Evan Nolte's 3-pointer, Garino scored seven straight points via two flying putbacks and a 3-point play. He then fed Tyler Cavanaugh for a layup, giving the Atlantic 10 program 61-55 lead with 6:36 left.
"Knowing they were coming, we had to turn [it on] again," Garino said.
One of the top wing defenders in the country, Garino was also tasked with defending Virginia's Malcolm Brogdon. After a slow start, the All-American scored a game-high 28 points including 11 straight to keep the Cavaliers in range. His jumper pulled Virginia closer at 70-66 with 2:00 remaining, but the Cavaliers missed their next three shots, all from beyond the arc.
Cavanaugh also scored 18 points and the Wake Forest transfer essentially sealed the win with two free throws with seven seconds left. Soon after, fans stormed the court in celebration.
Bennett certainly wasn't elated about his team's defense, which was a step behind throughout the rematch. GW turned 23 Virginia fouls into a 23-13 advantage from the free throw line The Colonials finished 23 of 28 including 15 of 17 in the second half.
"We had breakdowns that were costly," Bennett said.
Larsen's poor performance in last year's meeting cost GW. The big man, who Lonergan says is one of the best pure passers he's ever coached, sprayed balls all over the court in the loss.
Reflecting back on the loss at Virginia, Garino said, "This is nothing personal, but [Kevin] maybe had the worst game of his career [last year]."
The senior center responded with the most poised performance of the career, particularly when Virginia sent double teams his way. Larsen finished with a game-high five assists plus nine points and seven rebounds.
"When we went to trap, he was playing for the pass," Bennett said. "We were just out of position."
Beating one of the top teams in the country is a position these Colonials have been in before.
"Honestly, we're not surprised," Garino said. "We know we have the personnel, the confidence."
They also now have a wonderful memory and perhaps the start to an unforgettable season.