NEW YORK -- Being the underdog suits George Washington just fine. Two wins away from an Atlantic 10 tournament championship, and with an NCAA bid pretty much locked up, the Colonials still think of themselves as the team that was picked to finish 10th in the league this season.
Patricio Garino scored 15 points, Nemanja Mikic came off the bench to add 14 and George Washington showed off its depth and versatility in an 85-77 victory against Massachusetts in the A-10 quarterfinals Friday night.
The third-seeded Colonials (24-7) avenged a regular-season loss to UMass (24-8) and won at the conference tournament for the first time since 2007. That was also the last time GW made the NCAA tournament.
"We're a 3 seed, we earned it and it's great," third-year coach Mike Lonergan said. "But you know sometimes I feel like a 10 seed. We were picked 10th. I don't feel like we're sitting here like Saint Louis and VCU. We're playing, but I don't feel like we're the favorite."
The Colonials won't be Saturday when they play No. 23 VCU in the semifinals at Barclays Center in Brooklyn -- but regardless of the outcome GW is in fine shape to end its NCAA drought.
GW and VCU split two regular-season meetings.
"We just got to handle that pressure," Isaiah Armwood said. "If we can handle that pressure, stay out of foul trouble, I think we will be all right."
Maxie Esho had a career-high 22 points and seven rebounds for the sixth-seeded Minutemen, who are still looking good to reach the NCAA tournament for the first time since 1998.
"I feel tremendously confident about it" said Chaz Williams, who scored 16 of his 19 points in the second half for UMass.
Playing another game without second-leading scorer Kethan Savage, who is still nursing a foot injury, and with leading-scorer Maurice Creek struggling with his shot, George Washington got its offense from other places and confounded the Minutemen with their 1-3-1 zone defense.
Creek scored all of his 12 points in the second half.
For the second-straight night, Williams took a while to find his game while playing in front of friends and family not far from where he went to high school in Brooklyn.
He had three points in the first 31 minutes, but scored nine in a span of 1:55 to help cut the UMass deficit to eight with 6:46 left. The 5-foot-9 senior's 3 made it 63-55.
But Mikic was fouled shooting a 3 and made all the free throws, and then Larsen put-back Mikic's long-range miss to make it 68-55 with 5:04 left.
Creek's 3 with 4:40 bumped the lead to 16 and the George Washington student section, sensing a victory, serenaded their team with the chorus to "Seven Nation Army."
George Washington is one of the top turnaround teams in the country. Coming off a second-straight losing season under Lonergan, the Colonials bounced back and challenged for the Atlantic 10 title this year behind the Indiana transfer Creek and a contingent of five international players, including Garino from Argentina and Larsen from Denmark.
Mikic, a senior from Serbia, doubled his scoring average in the first half by hitting three 3-pointers as GW took control.
"We've known he's been a good shooter for a long time, but that nine points in the first half, actually, that kind of propelled them and gave them some confidence," UMass coach Derek Kellogg said. "He's a good player. He gives them another weapon."
Esho, as he did in UMass' victory against Rhode Island on Thursday night, came off the bench to spark the Minutemen with his play in the paint and 10 points, including a one-handed slam off a steal in the first half that brought the UMass fans to life.
The Minutemen had trimmed GW's early double-digit lead to four in the final minute, but the Colonials finished with a flourish.
Nick Griffin made a corner 3 with 23 seconds left in the half and Creek stole UMass' inbounds pass. Creek missed the short jumper, but Armwood cleaned up and sent the Colonials to the locker room with a 40-31 lead.
"A couple of non-smart basketball plays gave them momentum going into halftime," Kellogg said.