The Experience of a Lifetime for GW Men's Basketball in Italy
Aug. 28, 2012
Take student-athletes from Argentina, Canada, Denmark, Greece, Serbia and the United States, add triple-digit temperatures, mosquitoes, planes, buses and Vespas, mix them all together in a foreign land with two U.S. military bases serving as the best reminder of the city that they all now call home, and what do you get? The trip of a lifetime for George Washington's men's basketball team and invaluable team bonding.
From Wednesday, August 15th until they landed safely back at Dulles Airport on Sunday afternoon, the GW men's hoops squad practiced, played, toured and ate together all over Italy, on a trip that was equal parts team-bonding and business ahead of head coach Mike Lonergan's second season in Foggy Bottom.
"We really tried to maximize everything Italy had to offer in terms of its culture, sights, history and basketball. Our student-athletes embraced everything that was presented to them," said Coach Lonergan. "Each of our players participated in every educational tour arranged during the trip, which we were told was the first time that had happened on a Sports Travel International tour, so I'm extremely proud of the team for taking advantage of that aspect."
After a late night flight out of Washington almost two weeks ago, the team had a brief layover in Paris before the ancient city of Roma greeted them. The Roman Forum, Circus Maximus and of course, the Colosseum were the highlights of a day of touring in Rome, as although student-athletes aren't able to study abroad for a semester like many of their classmates, the men's basketball team enjoyed the next best thing.
Guided tours through another of the world's most beautiful capital cities punctuated the first leg of the Italian trip - though the team's sports medicine gurus and athletic trainers decided it was best to leave the Vespas behind when they departed Rome. When in Rome, goes the saying...but certainly not when in DC.
After enjoying the sights and sounds (and food) of Rome, the team got down to business on August 18th. Business, however, was twofold on this day - paying respect to the servicemen and women stationed at CNIC/Naval Support Activity base in Naples, while getting their first opportunity to play against a team other than their own.
Playing four 10-minute quarters, GW started slow against the base team, but turned up the defensive pressure and scored some easy baskets around the hoop for a 30-13 lead after the first stanza. Freshmen Joe McDonald and Patricio Garino hounded the NSA Naples backcourt defensively, while Kevin Larsen got some easy baskets from his fellow newcomers and anchored the paint with 12 first-half points to surge ahead 48-24 at the half. The second half featured some hot outside shooting from Nemanja Mikic, who finished just behind Larsen with 12 points, and some transition baskets to roll to a 65-30 lead after three quarters and eventually an 81-40 win. The Danish newcomer Larsen paced the Colonials in his first appearance in the Buff and Blue with 13 points in the game, followed closely by Mikic's 12 points, 11 points from Dwayne Smith and 10 from another freshman in Garino, giving GW four players in double-figures in scoring for a balanced Colonials' offense in the first of five games in Italy.
A drive through the scenic Tuscany region the next day brought the traveling party to Florence, where the itinerary featured Michelangelo's famous "David" statue, the Duomo, Baptistery, Giotto's Bell Tower and Santa Croce, with a view at night from atop the city at Michelangelo Park.
Nearby Pisa was on the agenda for the day following, and the players took turns taking the obligatory photograph trying to ease the Leaning Tower back into an upright position. No matter how many times the group cumulatively saw pictures of the world famous tower before the trip, pictures just didn't do the structural marvel any justice for the awed ballplayers.
Game Two of five was played at US Army base Camp Darby, where as with their Naval counterparts in Naples, the respect the GW contingent carried for the soldiers was evident. After assistant coaches Pete Strickland and Kevin Sutton conducted a clinic on basketball fundamentals for children on the base, Garino put on a clinic from behind the three-point arc in the game. On the strength of three 3-pointers en route to 11 points in the first half for the freshman, Garino and the Colonials led 59-20 at intermission. The barrage of threes continued all game as GW finished with nine triples in all as the squad coasted to a 97-45 victory.
Historic Siena awaited the Colonials contingent next, while a devil of a heat wave gripped the region as well. `Lucipher' - as it was dubbed by the locals per Italian tradition of naming heat waves - sent the mercury into the 100s, so the air-conditioned Ferrari Museum in Modena on August 22nd proved to be a hit for more than one reason.
Enzo Ferrari was known to say, "you do not need to remember your victories, rather remember your mistakes, it is the only way you will improve." Sound advice for a talented but young team that was about to face true Italian professional competition later that day. Traveling by bus (not the limited edition 1960's Ferrari with a price tag of $35 million), GW drove through the Emilia Romagna region to Poggio Rusco - the site of that night's game - which was recently devastated by an earthquake. If the visits to the military bases in Naples and Livorno didn't already bring the realization that this trip was also a goodwill mission as ambassadors of basketball, the attendance of nearly the entire town of Poggio Rusco at the game sent a message that if only for two hours, they were happy to have a basketball exhibition as a pleasant distraction.
Primavera Mirandola, also known by its sponsor Dinamica Generale, of Italy's Nazionale A League fell behind to their guests, 23-10, after the first quarter, but resiliently worked its way back to within four at 44-40 behind a series of long-range bombs. A closing fury by GW at the end of the half with a pair of Joe McDonald and a Bryan Bynes' 55-foot heave at the buzzer gave GW a 49-40 edge at the break. McDonald, Isaiah Armwood, Smith and Larsen then sparked a run to begin the second half as the Colonials surged to a 63-44 advantage halfway through the third quarter and cruised from there, with all 12 players getting into the scoring column en route to the 93-67 triumph. Armwood led the team on the night with 14 points and six rebounds, while McDonald's 13 points, six boards, five steals and four assists filled the box score, but the appreciative crowd was the story of the night.
More than halfway through the journey, with many of the sights of Italy in the rearview mirror, the trip took a decided turn to business on August 23rd when GW prepared to play its toughest competition of the trek.
Italian power Fortitudo Bologna, a bigger and stronger and more experienced squad than GW had previously seen, used on-ball defensive pressure and quick passing and movement on offense to put GW in a 13-point hole entering the fourth quarter. Mikic tried to spark a comeback with three second-half triples, but Bologna staved off any attempt at a rally as the Colonials suffered their first loss of the trip - 68-54. Mikic led the way with 11 points for GW, who looked forward to the following day's clash against the Oleggio Magic to end the trip on a victorious note.
Though Lucipher had subsided, the gym remained scorching in the town of Oleggio, and a curious happenstance of mosquitoes came to see GW in action in the final of five games in Italy. Armwood took the starring role in the first half against the Oleggio Magic, with 14 points before halftime. GW led 47-35 at the break, but the Magic continued to hang around in the third quarter, closing within five points at 54-49 with just over two minutes to play in the period. Once again GW made a run to cap the quarter with a 67-51 lead. The fourth quarter was all GW - a great way to end the tour games. The Colonials outscored the Magic, 26-7, over the final 10 minutes, including the contest's final 18 points over the last six minutes, for a 93-58 triumph. After Iowa State, a NCAA Tournament Sweet 16 participant in 2012, beat this same Oleggio Magic team by 41 points last summer, GW's 35-point victory was promising of what's to come. Garino (18 points), Armwood (16), McDonald (10) and fellow rookie Paris Maragkos (10) gave GW four players in double-figures in scoring, while Kromah and frosh Kethan Savage scored nine apiece.
"In regard to basketball, I think we learned a lot about our newcomers and where the team is in learning our system," said Coach Lonergan. "There's obviously a lot of work to do before the start of the upcoming season, but Italy was a great barometer of where we are and what works needs to be done."
At 4-1 on the trip, but with incalculable experience, the road-weary Buff and Blue relaxed on Lake Como on their final day in Italy - having packed action and excitement, culture and cuisine into every second in Italy. With memories of a lifetime behind them, the group now can only look ahead at what's to come in 2012-13.
"Overall, I think the trip was a great experience for everyone," said senior guard Bryan Bynes. "Learning the culture of Italy and meeting and greeting the people here was a great, once-in-a-lifetime experience that we all got to enjoy together. It gave us a jump start to get to know each other on the court so when we get back to practice we'll know what to do with one another and how each other plays. This trip really helped us as a team and as a unit to get ready for this upcoming season."