If the NCAA men's basketball committee took gallantry into account, George Mason would be a lock for a bid this coming Monday.
Sadly for the Patriots, gallantry counts far less than the Ratings Percentage Index.
That's why they will have to settle for a trip to the National Invitation Tournament after they came up just short of another March miracle in the Colonial Athletic Association title game last night. Playing its fourth game in four nights, against a top-seeded team that was virtually at home, Mason came up about a minute -- or perhaps one play -- short of pulling off what would have been a remarkable upset to cap off an extraordinary weekend. The Patriots kept building small leads -- never more than seven points -- then watching as Virginia Commonwealth rallied to lead. Then they would build another small lead.
Mason Coach Jim Larranaga was never better on the bench than last night. He kept shuffling players, trying to keep them fresh, using the TV timeouts -- 2 1/2 minutes each or, as referee Mike Wood said, "as long as ESPN wants them to be" -- to full advantage to give his tired players a breather.
"So close," he said. "We just about pulled it off."
They didn't pull it off because VCU was a little deeper, a little fresher and because it had Eric Maynor.
"I couldn't be more proud of these guys," Larranaga said, clearly drained after VCU had scored 11 straight points in the final two minutes to escape with a 65-59 victory. "They put every ounce of energy they had into this game."
For 158 minutes this weekend, Mason was the Mason of March a year ago. For two minutes it was the team that struggled for much of this season. In the end, Maynor, who was 3 for 13 for the first 38 minutes of the game, made three plays that won the championship for his team.
The Patriots had a 57-52 lead and the ball with the clock ticking under two minutes when Dre Smith tried to dribble past Maynor at midcourt. But Maynor, who has the kind of long arms every guard dreams about, stripped Smith, went the other way, made a spinning layup and was fouled. His free throw made it 57-55 with 1 minute 55 seconds left.
Seconds later, he stripped Gabe Norwood for a layup that tied the score. Then, after a miss by Folarin Campbell with the shot clock running down, Maynor hit a runner in the lane with 47 seconds to go to put VCU up to stay.
"He's a great player," Larranaga said. "He won the game for them with those three plays. I can't say enough about him."