CLEVELAND — As the ball emerged from a tangle of players and was launched downcourt Friday, a green and gold bash was raging in the lower and upper levels of Quicken Loans Arena.
Mike Morrison collected Isaiah Tate’s pass and, with George Mason’s two-point lead no longer in jeopardy, could’ve run out the clock. But considering what had unfolded in the previous two minutes, there was a more fitting way to conclude the NCAA tournament victory over Villanova: with an emphatic two-handed dunk.
“I came down in full yell and the whole team was on the court,” he said. “We were so hyped, so happy. It was crazy.”
With Morrison applying the finishing touches, the eighth-seeded Patriots and their delirious supporters officially celebrated a 61-57 triumph over the ninth-seeded Wildcats, their first NCAA victory since the dreamy Final Four run five years ago.
The reward is a second-round meeting Sunday with Ohio State, the tournament’s top overall seed, which crushed No. 16 Texas-San Antonio, 75-46. While the prospects of facing the Buckeyes (33-2) are hardly comforting, the Patriots (27-6) will savor a victory that seemed out of reach most of the unsightly afternoon.
Although they never trailed by more than 10 points, the Patriots never seemed in it. They didn’t resemble the team that had won the Colonial Athletic Association regular season title and run off 16 consecutive victories, earning them the highest seed in their six NCAA visits. Each time they seemed to find their rhythm, they would slip into another rut.
Facing a six-point deficit with about two minutes left, the Patriots embarked on a 13-3 surge to add another absorbing chapter to a remarkable season. Sophomore guard Luke Hancock (18 points) made a three-pointer with 19 seconds left and Villanova’s Corey Stokes missed a baseline jumper, leading to the scramble and, ultimately, Morrison’s dunk.
“We kind of ended up being the last team standing,” Patriots Coach Jim Larranaga said. “This was anything but pretty, but it’s not important whether it’s pretty or not. What is important is advancing. And we survived.”
The Patriots survived despite trailing almost the entire game and shooting poorly from all distances. They survived because Hancock awakened his team midway through the second half with a series of ambitious drives. They survived because they held the Wildcats (21-12) to 7-of-24 shooting in the second half and revealed their steely composure in the closing moments.
Tate’s three-pointer with 1 minute 54 seconds left cut George Mason’s deficit to three. After Villanova’s Antonio Pena missed two free throws, Hancock fired the ball inside to Ryan Pearson, who converted and was fouled for a three-point play and a 54-54 tie.
After Villanova nearly threw away the ball, Mouphtaou Yarou missed the front end of a one-and-one. Hancock’s shot was blocked, but George Mason retained possession. Pearson missed in the lane, but Morrison (10 points, 11 rebounds) slammed in the rebound with 55 seconds left for the team’s first lead since early in the game.
With 31 seconds left, Villanova’s Corey Fisher (20 points) was fouled by Tate on a three-point attempt and made all three foul shots for a 57-56 edge. Hancock then faked Stokes and stepped back for a flat-footed three-pointer with 19 seconds to go.
“I wasn’t the first option,” said Hancock, who scored 12 of his 18 points after halftime. “I was definitely looking to penetrate and pitch [because] we’ve got such good shooters. I definitely hesitated a little bit. It’s a big shot. I was hoping and praying.”
Said Wildcats Coach Jay Wright: “We took away his first look, which is drive and score. His second look — drive and pass — we took it away. We had Stokes on him. He’s our best defender, and the kid made a great play.”
Still, Villanova had a final chance.
“We needed one more stop, just one more stop,” Morrison said. “Everybody was bouncing around.”
Maalik Wayns missed on a drive and the rebound dropped to Pearson, who was sitting on the court after falling. Villanova, however, forced a jump ball and regained possession. After a timeout, Stokes’s shot hit the side of the backboard, all but securing the Wildcats’ sixth consecutive loss and their first defeat in five all-time meetings with the Patriots.
The stirring finish rekindled memories of George Mason’s 2006 heroics, though this group has a long way to go — and a huge obstacle Sunday — to match that run.
“We’ve just got to keep going,” senior guard Cam Long said. “We’re doing it in our own way.”