RICHMOND — This is what March sounds like.
“We knew they were going to make a run and that we were going to have to bow our necks at the end to get the job done. That’s exactly what we did. It’s a sign of maturity, which is what you need this time of year.”
It also sounds like this: “We haven’t made a play all year when we needed it. That was the story of our entire season right there. We needed a play and we didn’t make it.”
George Mason Coach Paul Hewitt was breathing a deep sigh of relief Saturday evening at the Richmond Coliseum. Drexel Coach Bruiser Flint was shaking his head in frustration thinking about one last final play not made in a season gone wrong.
Hewitt headed back to his hotel to prepare to play a Colonial Athletic Association tournament semifinal game on Sunday against top-seeded Northeastern. Flint headed back up I-95 to Philadelphia to start thinking about next year.
The CAA tournament isn’t always a lose-and-go-home event for everyone, but it is in this strange season, when only Northeastern knows it will play postseason basketball someplace if it doesn’t cut down the nets here on Monday night (as regular season champion, the Huskies are ensured of a bid to the National Invitation Tournament).
That’s why George Mason’s 60-54 victory over Drexel was more of a brawl than a basketball game. “An old-fashioned rock fight,” Towson Coach Pat Skerry said when it was over. “Fun to watch, not to coach.”
That Skerry was watching and not coaching this weekend is all part of the CAA’s strange saga this winter. Skerry was named the league’s coach of the year and Georgetown transfer Jerome Benimon was player of the year, and the Tigers pieced together the greatest turnaround season in NCAA history, going from one victory a year ago to 18 this year.
But poor academic performance prior to Skerry’s arrival made them ineligible for postseason play — including this tournament. The same thing happened to UNC Wilmington. Old Dominion and Georgia State both decided to bolt the conference because of football, and thus were inelgible to compete here. VCU abandoned ship last spring to join the soon-to-be-shrinking Atlantic 10.
When the dust finally cleared, the CAA was left with just seven teams eligible for its postseason tournament, meaning Northeastern received a bye into Sunday’s semifinals while the Patriots and Dragons were throwing rocks — and bricks — at one another. George Mason shot 38.3 percent — and won.
The Patriots won because leading scorer Sherrod Wright stopped settling for jump shots after scoring just five points in the first half and produced 18 in the second, mostly by attacking the lane every chance he got. They won because Bryon Allen was superb at both ends of the floor, scoring 16 points, coming up with six steals and making that key play — the one his team had been missing for most of the last two months — with the game on the line.
“Only took me a year and a half to figure out he should be playing on the wing,” Hewitt said, clearly only half-joking. “He’s been our best player for the last month.”
Allen’s defense and Wright’s offense helped the Patriots build a 44-29 lead with 11 minutes 36 seconds left in the game. Drexel was having trouble with GMU’s press and Wright, after a halftime lecture from his coach, was consistently getting the ball inside.
“I knew I had to stop settling for jump shots,” he said, noting that he had been 0 for 4 from outside the three-point line during the first 20 minutes. “Once I started trying to take the ball to their defense, good things started to happen.”
The good things didn’t last, though — just as Hewitt suspected they wouldn’t. His team has not been very good with the lead all season: It led Drexel by 20 at home on Jan. 31 and lost, and other second-half leads have gone aglimmering since conference play began. Frantz Massenat, who finished with 20 points for Drexel, began taking the ball to the basket play after play and the Patriots, who had been able to play without fouling for most of 30 minutes, suddenly couldn’t keep the Dragons in front of them without sending them to the line.
“I don’t know if we got a little tired or it was just that they scrapped their offense and began driving the ball on every play,” Hewitt said. “They were smart. We were stopping their sets so they just abandoned them.”
The lead withered and Hewitt had to feel like he was watching the same bad movie he’d seen over and over again all winter. Drexel cut the margin to 56-54 on Damion Lee’s three-pointer with 1:22 to go, and when Wright missed at the other end, the Dragons had the ball with 39 seconds left with a chance to tie or take the lead.
And then Allen made the play Hewitt has been waiting for someone to make since January. Massenet had the ball and was going to drive it left and into the lane for the 100th time in the final 10 minutes (or so it seemed). McCoy came out to screen and Allen went over the screen and cut Massenet off. Forced to go back to his right, Massenet forced a bad shot and Wright chased down the rebound with 15 seconds to go.
He was fouled and made both free throws. A few seconds later, Hewitt was thinking about Northeastern and Flint was thinking about next season.
“I did a bad job the last time we played them,” Hewitt said. “They had one set they killed us with and it was my fault because I didn’t have them ready to defend it. I told the guys that night, ‘Sometimes it’s on you; tonight was on me.’ We may lose tomorrow but it won’t be because of that set — that much I’ll promise.”
All that Mason is promised right now is a third crack at Northeastern. Hewitt and his players were more than happy to take that after the rock fight was finally over.
In the end, Drexel couldn’t make one more play. Mason did make one more play. Which is why the Patriots get to play at least one more game. In March, that’s all you can ask for.
For more by John Feinstein, go to www.washingtonpost.com/feinstein.