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WASHINGTON – Looking for a statement win, George Washington had to settle for a rather noticeable scare.
The rebuilding Colonials rallied from 17 points down in the second half Saturday and nearly pulled off their biggest win in many years, losing 59-56 to No. 14 Butler.
"We still want to get the 'W.' It still is a blow to us," said Joe McDonald, who had the ball stripped as he went up for a potential tying 3-pointer just before the buzzer. "It showed that if we play hard from the get-go rather than when we get down 17, we can win. We can compete."
Starting four true freshmen in coach Mike Lonergan's second year at the school, the Colonials (11-11, 5-4 Atlantic 10) had a sellout crowd at the Smith Center for the first time since 2006. They were looking to beat a ranked team at home for the first time since 1998.
Butler is a popular target these days. The Bulldogs (20-4, 7-2) are making their inaugural tour of unfamiliar hostile environments in the school's first Atlantic 10 season.
"Five straight places that have been absolutely jumping," Butler coach Brad Stevens said. "You have to find a way to be tough. You have to find a way to stay together. Nothing builds team like that kind of environment. I really like it."
Butler led 48-31 with 12 minutes to play, but the Colonials' full-court press and Roosevelt Jones' poor free throw shooting — he entered the game shooting 59.1 percent and went 2 for 9 from the line, all in the second half — helped get the Colonials back into the game and set up a frenetic finish.
After McDonald cut the lead to five with a free throw with 1:34 remaining, Jones was fouled and missed two more at the line. Lasan Kromah's tip-in then made it 57-54 with 52 seconds to play, and McDonald then made a steal in the backcourt and was fouled. He made both free throws, and it was 57-56 with 44 seconds left.
Kellen Dunham made two free throws with 24 seconds to go to restore Butler's three-point lead. With a chance to tie, McDonald missed a 3-pointer, and a held ball was called on the rebound with 9 seconds remaining. Possession went to Butler, but Jones was called for traveling along the baseline before throwing the ball inbounds.
Nemanja Mikic missed another 3 for the Colonials, and another held ball gave the ball back to George Washington. McDonald had the ball for one final shot, but lost the ball in a crowd as he left his feet.
"We just couldn't get that open 3," said Lonergan, whose team shot 1 for 12 from 3-point range.
Jones was wearing padding after he hurt his shoulder Wednesday against St. Bonaventure, but he said the injury didn't affect him. He finished with 12 points, and Rotnei Clark scored 14 to lead the Bulldogs (20-4, 7-2).
Isaiah Armwood had 14 points and 11 rebounds for the Colonials, who were hosting their highest ranked opponent since 2000. The Colonials shot 28 percent and were rattled early, prompting Lonergan to call in the veterans off his bench.
"There was definitely some nerves," the coach said.
George Washington trailed 31-22 at halftime, but foul trouble hurt Butler late. Erik Fromm got his fifth with 6:48 remaining, and Andrew Smith was gone with 4:52 to go.
Shortly afterward, the Colonials cut the deficit to single digits for the first time in the second half on Kromah's layup with 4:21 left.
But they couldn't finish the comeback.
"It hurts when you're so close," Lonergan said. "But it beats losing by 30."
One of the officials, Joe DeMayo, left the game late in the first half with a right Achilles injury. The teams finished the half with two officials, and a substitute joined the crew for the second half.
Follow Joseph White on Twitter: http://twitter.com/JGWhiteAP