George Washington needed a spark, and Kethan Savage had the answer.
With the Colonials, that starts with defense.
Savage, running tirelessly at the top of a 1-3-1 zone, twice swatted away passes and turned them into layups as the Colonials were relentless to the end Thursday night in a 60-54 upset of No. 11 Wichita State in the Diamond Head Classic championship game.
Savage led the Colonials (9-3) with 12 points to go along with three steals, none bigger than the two he made during a late 16-2 run that carried them to their first in-season tournament title since knocking off Michigan State and Maryland in 2004 at the BB&T Classic in Washington.
"I wanted to find a way to give us some momentum," Savage said. "On the defensive end, we needed to make a stop, and we were able to turn those into points."
Yuta Watanabe, the 6-foot-8 freshman from Japan, took over at the top of the zone when Savage got a breather, and he came up big on the offensive side. He hit a 3-pointer with 3:32 left that gave George Washington the lead for good and finished with 10 points and four rebounds.
The Shockers (10-2) were so out of sorts at the end that they were called for a 5-second inbounds violation, and Kevin Larsen hit a 3 for a 57-52 lead. Joe McDonald worked the shot clock down and drove the lane for a tough basket to cap the big run.
Wichita State managed only one field over the last 6 minutes.
"It’s an unusual defense. You don’t see it every day," Wichita State coach Gregg Marshall said. "It’s kind of a 1-3-1, but they really go all the way to half court. We talked about it in shootaround today that we wanted to attack the middle. I don’t know. We didn’t make the right decisions, we didn’t make the shots."
Wichita State, which had to rally in the final minute of overtime to beat Hawaii in the semifinal, didn’t make much all week and couldn’t crack the zone. The Shockers were 34 percent from the field for the game.
Fred VanVleet led the Shockers with 11 points, six of them in the first 4 minutes. He was 4 of 15 from the field. Ron Baker, their leading scorer, was held to nine points on 4-of-12 shooting. He made only one 3-pointer in six attempts.
George Washington coach Mike Lonergan had Watanabe and Savage trade off at the top because of all the running involved. Savage was there at the right time.
"He’s deceptively quick," Lonergan said. "He’s good at guessing, predicting where they’re going to pass it. Those were huge. He got us points when we were struggling to score."
The Shockers led by as many as seven points in the first half until George Washington tied at 28 at intermission. They led by as many as eight in the second period, and the Colonials refused to fold.
Reserve guard Ria’n Holland appeared to send the Shockers on their way with three consecutive 3s for a 45-37 lead, and then Darius Carter hit a 3-pointer when the shot clock was about to expire for a 48-40 lead with 7:42 remaining. Carter had made the only 3-pointers he has attempted all season.
But after VanVleet drove for a score and a 50-43 lead, that was it for Wichita State. Savage took over with his defense, the hallmark of the Colonials.
Baker was 13 of 41 from the field for the Diamond Head Classic, and 5 of 22 from the 3-point range. He came into the tournament shooting 50 percent from the field, and 47 percent on 3s.
Kevin Larsen was named the tournament’s most valuable player. His high school (Montrose Christian in Maryland) won a tournament in Hawaii, making him undefeated in the Aloha State.
George Washington set a Diamond Head Classic record by giving up only 153 points in three games, breaking the record of 156 set by Southern California in 2009. The most any team has scored on the Colonials this season was Charlotte (70) in the Colonials’ 78-70 victory.
The Colonials came into the game shooting 30 percent from the 3-point line. They were 9 of 15 against the Shockers.
"The truth is, we finally made some 3s," Lonergan said. "That’s been our weakness all year. When the shots are there outside, we’ve got to take advantage of it."
Wichita State had a tough time making up a deficit late in the game because neither team was in the bonus situation. George Washington finished with only eight personal fouls, while the Shockers fouled late to bring their total to 11. The Colonials were 3 of 6 from the foul line. Zach Brown attempted the only two free throws for Wichita State.
Wichita State plays at Drake on New Year’s Eve.
George Washington plays VMI on Tuesday.