The pregame script had all the requisite plot points needed for George Washington's signature win under coach Mike Lonergan. The final tense moments did as well.
Just one problem: Butler's ranking and national status did not come by accident.
Yet by tracking down the No. 14 ranked Bulldogs with a stirring second half comeback, the Colonials showed their recent surge up the Atlantic 10 standings was well earned. However, rather than ending the day in a potential first place tie, George Washington lost to the Atlantic 10 leading Bulldogs 59-56 on Saturday afternoon.
Butler entered as the highest ranked team visiting Foggy Bottom since 2000. The full-throated crowd represented the first sellout in seven seasons and had Smith Center pumping like a noisy rock concert. The surging Colonials (11-11, 5-4) and their four freshmen starters entered the pivotal Atlantic 10 matchup having won four of five games.
They also began the game with nervous energy and a voluminous amount of missed shots, leading to a 17-point deficit midway through the second half. George Washington incrementally clawed its way back to within single point inside the final minute and down three with 23 seconds remaining. Two offensive possessions followed, potential game-tying 3-point shots were attempted - and missed.
"Down three, we got to get a three, just don't make them, that's frustrating," Colonials coach Mike Lonergan said. "I was really happy with our effort. It hurts when you're so close, but it beats losing by 30."
That's the way the game appeared headed. After enduring a lengthy first-half scoring drought and more shooting woes after halftime, the Colonials trailed 48-31 with 12 minutes remaining.
Credit relentless pressure defense and pursuit of rebounds for the comeback after the Bulldogs (20-4, 7-2) controlled the boards in the first half. George Washington held Butler without a field goal for the final seven minutes and thirty-four seconds.
"George Washington I thought was playing as well as anybody around," Butler coach Brad Stevens said. "Their aggressiveness and assertiveness will get them a lot of wins."
Not having a single player make at least half his shots will not. The Colonials shot 27.9 percent from the field against the Bulldog's textbook defense. George Washington offset missing 11 of 12 from beyond the arc by outrebounding Butler in the second half and forcing 19 turnovers.
"I looked at the stat sheet," Lonergan said postgame, "and I was just amazed we shoot 27 percent to be even in the game. Credit their defense, especially in the first half. But the 1-12 from 3's, that's been out Achilles Heel almost all year."
Isaiah Armwood had 14 points and 11 rebounds for the Colonials.
"The way we played in the second half is the way we have to play all the time," Armwood said.
Joe McDonald, one of four freshman starting for George Washington, scored 10 points. His two free throws with 44 seconds had the Colonials down 57-56 and the jammed Smith Center jamming.
The Landon product also missed a late 3-pointer, as did Nemanja Mikic with seven seconds remaining. After the second tie-up inside the final 10 seconds gave George Washington another chance, McDonald lost possession and final attempt never was.
Asked if the furious comeback against a highly ranked still counted as a highlight for a rising team, McDonald said, "in a way, but we still want to get the W so it was still a blow to us."
The Bulldogs defense reached such smothering heights in the first half that seemingly any George Washington score appeared fortuitous. The Colonials led 10-8 following a Bryan Bynes' basket with 14:48 left in the first half. They would not make another field goal into Patricio Garino's tip-in with 6:47 remaining.
"I'm not saying we were shook," Lonergan said," but there was definitely some nerves with our young guys."
The Colonials also definitely learned from their physical and mental miscues. They scrapped with the Bulldogs, holding their own defensively, even if few in the country compare favorably to Butler's ball-stoppers.
Nobody is comparing George Washington's program with one that reached the National Championship game in 2010 and 2011. The fact that George Washington put a scare into Butler on top of its other recent wins is indeed progress.
"We're still not consistent," Lonergan said. "That's what makes Butler so good...but we're coming a long ways."