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jambrosio
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WASHINGTON -- To fully appreciate the euphoria that engulfed George Washington University Saturday, a quick flashback is in order. Dial back to November 2001, and a hallway in Rupp Arena.

 

The Colonials were in a two-day, four-team tournament hosted by the Kentucky Wildcats. They played the opening game against Marshall. It was their first game under a young and eager coach named Karl Hobbs.

 

GW was down 18 at halftime, yet somehow stormed back to win, 69-64. It was a dream debut.

 

After discussing the game with the media, Hobbs met up with his exuberant coaching staff in that hallway to collect their wits and figure out what to do next.

 

"Let's go home," assistant Steve Pikiell said.

 

"You mean the hotel?" Hobbs replied.

 

"No," Pikiell responded with a smile. "Let's go home. Because it's never going to get any better than this."

 

Oh, it's gotten better than that for GW basketball. Much better. And Saturday it officially lifted off the charts.

 

This was pot-of-gold-at-the-end-of-the-rainbow better.

 

There still could be great thrills to come, but only a Final Four could supercede the joy of this moment. The four-and-a-half year elevation of George Washington poetically peaked amid pandemonium in the Charles Smith Center.

 

 

 

Brad Smith-US PRESSWIRE

Mike Hall can't believe the ending that helped keep GW a one-loss team.

Students emptied from the stands and turned the floor into a howling mosh pit. Players screamed, danced, laughed and cried. Fans hugged security guards, who hugged back.

 

"This is something that when I'm an old man, I'll be telling my great-great grands," GW guard Danilo "J.R." Pinnock said.

 

All it took to create this Hollywood moment was a four-point possession that ended on a soaring, buzzer-beating Carl Elliott putback of an airball in overtime to shock Charlotte, 86-85. Oh, and some unconscionable end-of-game cheap shots by 49ers knucklehead Leemire Goldwire, giving GW its final chance. And a desperation three with seven seconds left in regulation by Maureece Rice to force overtime. Don't forget a total of five missed Charlotte free throws in the final minute of regulation and the last 1:08 of overtime, either. And, of course, you must remember it was Senior Day for a beloved five-man class that put the program on their shoulders.

 

The only thing that could have made it any more storybook would have been a guest appearance and late-game 3 from Jason McElwaine.

 

"This has to rank up there as the No. 1 game since I've been coaching," Hobbs said. "For it to end in such dramatic fashion, and for it to end like that on Senior Day, you couldn't ask for anything better."

 

There were big dreams when this current senior group of Colonials was recruited by Hobbs to turn GW from a striver into a power. But even dreams have limits, and what has happened this year -- spiking on Saturday -- seems to strain those limits.

 

"We were hoping we'd be good, and we kept working and improving the system," senior Omar Williams said, then chuckled. "We still couldn't have drawn it up like this."

 

It's drawn up this way for the Colonials: a 26-1 record, best in the nation; a perfect 16-0 in the Atlantic 10; a No. 6 national ranking, highest in program history; and the longest current winning streak in America at 18 games.

 

All of which came within a split second of being blown up by Charlotte on Saturday.

 

Start with the bizarre end of the game. At a time when the 49ers should have been wrapping up their biggest win of the season, Goldmire instead chose to throw a couple of elbows at the head of Colonial forward Mike Hall.

 

To reset: GW point guard Rice missed a three with about 10 seconds left in OT and Charlotte forward DeAngelo Alexander grabbed the rebound and was fouled with 5.7 seconds left. A trip to the line to ice the game seemed forthcoming. But while that was going on, Hall was becoming entangled with Goldwire.

 

In an inexplicable loss of composure, Goldwire responded by twice taking vigorous backward swings at Hall's head with his right elbow. Charlotte coach Bobby Lutz burst off the bench and ran across the court to grab Goldwire -- under the rules the coach has the right to come on the court to help quell a confrontation -- and the combatants were separated.

 

"I just saw guys tangled up," Lutz said. "I didn't know what happened."

 

The officials then dispatched both teams to their benches while they spent a small eternity looking at the replay monitor. Unbeknownst to anyone, lead official Fran Connolly had called a technical foul on Goldwire. Connolly told a pool reporter that the tape was reviewed to see whether Goldwire threw a punch, which would necessitate an ejection.

 

When Connolly explained the call to Lutz, the coach's displeasure was obvious. Lutz went back to his bench and tossed his suit coat over it. The capacity crowd of 5,000 roared when the tech was announced.

 

With the technical, GW would get two shots plus possession of the ball after Alexander shot his free throws. For the second time in the final 25 seconds, Alexander -- a 74 percent foul shooter -- made one and missed one. Then Hall made two to cut the deficit to 85-84, setting the stage for the final play.

 

GW drew up a play for Rice, but Charlotte switched to a zone out of the timeout and Rice aborted. He surprisingly passed to freshman Noel Wilmore, who came into the game averaging 1.9 points. With no choice, Wilmore jacked up a 3 from the right wing that sailed cleanly over everything.

 

Had it caught iron at all, GW would have lost. But the airball gave the Colonials time for a follow shot.

 

Enter Elliott, who came streaking down the baseline from the corner. The 6-foot-4 guard jumped over high-flying teammate Regis Koundjia to grab the ball a couple feet from the rim and lob it back through the net as the horn sounded.

 

It happened so suddenly that the Smith Center public-address announcer mistakenly credited the basket to Koundjia. He should have known better.

 

This came 13 months after Elliott won another game at the gun. His half-court shot at the buzzer on Feb. 5, 2005, beat Dayton 62-59.

 

"I'm a big-shot guy," Elliott said, laughing.

 

"If I'm ever in a desperate situation, I gotta call this guy right here," Pinnock said, pointing at Elliott. "He's money."

 

Elliott hit the deck after his leaping hoop, but not for long. He jumped up, tore his jersey off, "and started running." Elliott quickly disappeared into the mob that emptied from the stands.

 

The same mob stood in long lines for hours on a blustery, cold D.C. day, waiting to get in for this game. Students in body paint and face paint, music booming -- it was an atmosphere normally reserved for the Kentuckys and Kansases of college basketball.

 

But guess what? GW is ranked higher than those bluebloods this year.

 

Will Dempster, a writer for the student paper, "The Hatchet," said his roommates got in line at 5 a.m. to ensure they'd get some of the approximately 2,000 student seats in the Smith Center. Dempster said that when he was a freshman, he could walk in midway through the first half and get a good seat.

 

"This year it's been impossible to get in," he said.

 

After the game Saturday it was nearly impossible to get the kids out. After the fans took over the court, the players all wound up dancing on the scorer's table -- even the injured center, Pops Mensah-Bonsu, who is certainly the most popular man on the Foggy Bottom campus.

 

But before that, Mensah-Bonsu was overcome by the moment. Torn knee cartilage forced him to miss Senior Day, a bitter blow when his family had flown in from England to see him play for the first time. He cheered lustily for his teammates, and afterward, amid the swirl of students on the court, Pops wept on the shoulder of his brother.

 

"There were so many highs and lows, it's kind of hard to explain," the charismatic, eloquent Mensah-Bonsu said. "It was really tough for me to watch this game today. I love this team so much, I wanted to be part of this atmosphere.

 

"It's kind of hard for me to fathom that I'd never play on this court again. But that's the best way to go out. I couldn't control myself."

 

Mensah-Bonsu, expected back in uniform for the NCAA Tournament, and his fellow seniors have come a long way. They've taken the GW program with them.

 

"These kids," said Hobbs, "they've become adults."

 

But no adult could have foreseen this.

 

"Never in a million years," Mensah-Bonsu said. "If you would've told me we'd be No. 6 in the country, 26-1, 16-0 at home, longest winning streak, me graduating, going out on top? I'd tell you you're lying. This whole season is a dream come true, and this is a perfect ending."

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