On a day when the sellout crowd of 3,200 at the Rose Hill Gym said goodbye to senior Branden Frazier, Fordham turned in what may have been its best effort of the season.
In a seesaw battle that produced 15 ties, the Rams couldn't get shots to fall in the final minute, and a series of turnovers down the stretch ended any hope they had of upsetting George Washington, as the Colonials left the Bronx with a hard-fought 70-67 win.
"We're so close to turning the corner here," Fordham head coach Tom Pecora said after the game. "There's a team (George Washington) that's going to the NCAA tournament—one of the top four teams in the conference."
The Colonials, now 23-7 overall and 11-5 in the Atlantic 10, crushed the Rams, 93-67, one month ago, when the two teams met in Washington, D.C.
Though Fordham lost on Saturday, its effort was much better this time around.
"I thought we showed great toughness and a lot of grit tonight in continuing to grind and never give up," Pecora said.
Fordham, one of the worst rebounding teams in the Atlantic 10, out-rebounded George Washington, one of the best in the conference, 46-28.
"I give Fordham a lot of credit," George Washington head coach Mike Lonergan said. "They out-rebounded us by 18. They played their rear ends off."
As has been the case throughout much of his Fordham career, Frazier led the Rams with 28 points (19 in the second half) and four assists. He also grabbed eight rebounds.
In his final home game, Frazier came out of halftime on fire, scoring six points and dishing out an assist in the first three minutes of the second half. He missed a couple of shots late, including a three-pointer at the buzzer that would have sent the game into overtime, but without him this one would have been over a lot earlier.
"It felt good to play out there with the crowd," Frazier said when asked about his emotions playing in his final home game.
"It's bad that we didn't get the win. It's bittersweet. I was just anxious to win."
At halftime, George Washington led by only two, 31-29, thanks to Frazier and junior Ryan Canty, who turned in his best performance of the season.
Especially in the first half, Canty embodied the type of effort Pecora expects from his team. Canty was a physical presence on both ends of the floor. He grabbed 11 rebounds (five offensive) and scored eight points in the first half. He finished with a game-high 16 rebounds and added 12 points.
Though Fordham led 61-56 with five minutes and 10 seconds to go in the game, the Colonials went on a 9-0 run over the next two minutes. Fordham had its chances late but couldn't knock down the big shot and couldn't overcome key turnovers with the game on the line.
"We only had seven turnovers for the game but a couple of them were real tough ones," Pecora said. "I thought we got some pretty good looks at different times."
"It's been that kind of year."
While Frazier and Canty were doing their thing, Fordham didn't get a whole lot from anyone else. Freshman Jon Severe, the team's second-leading scorer, was 3-of-13 from the floor. Mandell Thomas was 2-of-13. Bryan Smith didn't connect on any of his four attempts. Offensively, Fordham needed more.
"I thought Branden was superb [and] Ryan Canty's performance was exceptional," Pecora said. "We're just searching for that third guy. We got some good looks. We just couldn't knock them down."
What they did do was play a brand of basketball that Pecora says has been missing at times this year. The rebounding alone explains why Fordham had a chance to upset George Washington.
"If you win the battle of the boards you win most games," Pecora said. "If you control the paint and the backboards it's the same as controlling the line of scrimmage in football. You're going to win a lot of games. We controlled the backboards. We didn't do a great job defending the paint."
Fordham gave up 28 points in the paint, 20 in the second half.
Despite the loss—Fordham's eighth in a row—at least this one didn't end with Pecora questioning his team's level of intensity.
"What kept us in the game was they gave great effort," he said. "I think it was as good an effort as we've had all year. You lay this effort out every night and it's a different kind of season for us. If you give effort like we did tonight you'll win a lot of basketball games."
Fordham hasn't won since Feb. 1. The Rams will take the court on Wednesday night in the play-in game of the Atlantic 10 tournament at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn.
Because of a change in format—all teams now qualify—the Rams, despite their 2-14 conference record (9-20 overall) and last-place finish, will have the opportunity to appear in the tournament as the 13th seed. They'll take on 12th-seeded George Mason.
Pecora said his team's effort on Saturday was the perfect example of why all teams, no matter their regular-season performance, should be given the opportunity to play in the conference tournament.
"If you don't believe you can go into this tournament and win games, you're crazy," he said. "That's why big-time conferences have everyone in the tournament. That's a carrot for me to dangle in front of this team. It would be a shame if we played a game like this (against George Washington) and we weren't in the tournament because they decided to only keep 12 teams."
"It will be a great opportunity for us."
All quotations in this article were obtained firsthand.