By John Feinstein
Tuesday, March 6, 2007
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."
Maynor deserves full credit. VCU was a deserving champion, a team that played from behind almost the whole night but never gave in to the notion that the Mason Mystique still lived -- even when it appeared it was very much alive.
But it is not unreasonable to say the Patriots deserved a better fate -- especially Norwood, the lone senior whose loss will be felt on the court next season. Larranaga knew the Rams would press relentlessly throughout the game, and he tried to keep the ball in fresh hands all night, alternating Norwood and Jordan Carter at the point guard spot throughout. But with 5:11 left, Carter went down in a heap trying to get through a double team in the back court, even while Larranaga was screaming for a timeout. He got the timeout, but not before Carter limped off with a knee injury.
Norwood came back and promptly drilled a three-point shot to put the Patriots back in front, 50-49. He then grabbed a rebound and started a fast break that led to a layup by Will Thomas and a 52-49 lead with 4:11 to go. But as the clock wound down, Larranaga couldn't give Norwood a blow -- one he clearly needed -- and you could see the bounce go out of his legs.
"This hurts," Norwood said. "I'm very optimistic for these guys that they'll be back in this game and leave here happy next year. It was always going to be tough to repeat what we had last year, but this weekend was our own little time to shine. We tried to make the most of it."
They did that. In many ways they proved this weekend that last year wasn't just a one-time wonder, that this will be a competitive program in a very good league for years to come. With everyone but Norwood back and an incoming freshman class Larranaga likes a lot, the Patriots should be a force again next year.
But no one was thinking about that last night when the buzzer rang and the VCU fans stormed the court -- after being instructed by the PA announcer how to storm the court. Norwood drifted to the side of the court to avoid being trampled. He stared at the celebration for a moment, then put his jersey over his head and walked toward the locker room. Like his teammates, he had nothing to be ashamed about. In fact, he had plenty about which to feel proud.
As Larranaga was getting ready to limp out of his news conference -- even the Mason coaches were hurting by the end of the night -- someone asked him if he thought his team would get an NIT bid.
"I hope so," he said. "I want this team to keep playing. I think we deserve one, don't you? Everyone write that we deserve an NIT bid."
They deserve an NIT bid. Actually, they deserve even better.