Joe Harrington was feeling pretty good as last night was turning into today. His ball club was one home victory away from going to the NCAA basketball tournament.
"Forgive me while I savor this a moment," he said after his George Mason team defeated second-seeded Richmond, 62-60, last night in front of 4,439 fans at Patriot Center to advance to tonight's championship game of the Colonial Athletic Association tournament.
Harrington should enjoy the victory while it lasts, because tonight his team will have to face the 18th-ranked and top-seeded Midshipmen of Navy, who beat North Carolina-Wilmington, also by a 62-60 score, in the other semifinal. Game time for the CAA final is 8 p.m.
George Mason (19-10) has won seven in a row. Its last loss was Feb. 6, when Navy won, 81-68, at Patriot Center as David Robinson had 33 points and 20 rebounds.
The Midshipmen, who moved up one spot in this week's Associated Press poll, are 26-4 and have won 12 straight and 19 of their last 20.
Somebody's streak will end tonight. And, not surprisingly, Harrington was playing the underdog role to the hilt.
"Three things have to happen," he said with a laugh. "David Robinson has to break a leg, Kylor Whitaker has to break a wrist and Vernon Butler needs to have a relapse of the flu."
Last night, Robinson had 22 points and 16 rebounds and Butler finished with 17 points and eight rebounds as Navy just wore down UNC-Wilmington (16-13), which got 24 points and 10 rebounds from 6-foot-9 center Brian Rowsom.
Richmond (23-6), after suffering its second upset at the hands of George Mason, most likely is not finished. But the Spiders will have to wait and hope for an at-large bid to the NCAA tournament.
"I don't have the foggiest idea," Richmond Coach Dick Tarrant said when asked where he thought his team stood. "I just know we're not going to be here tomorrow night, which disappoints us."
Harrington was asked if the Spiders deserved a bid.
"It's a tough choice, but I hope they take a hard look at George Mason. We've beaten them two of three, not to blow our own horn," said Harrington, doing exactly that. "But we've played a tough schedule and I really think it helped us."
The Patriots' Ricky Wilson led all scorers with 20 points. Rob Rose had 13, Kenny Sanders 12 and Earl Moore 11 for Mason.
Rose, who also had 12 rebounds, missed all five of his field goal attempts in the first half and had just one point. But he responded with 12 in the second half and carried Mason down the stretch.
"I was 0 for five, but I just had to take control," Rose said. "I felt good in the second half."
John Newman, who was four for 14 from the field but hit all 10 of his free throws, finished with 18 for Richmond and Rodney Rice had 12.
Richmond ran off seven in a row to build a 29-22 lead with about seven minutes to go in the first half. Two of the seven came on free throws by Newman, courtesy of a technical called on Harrington.
"I gave it a Lefty stomp, and he called a technical," said Harrington, who used to be an assistant under Maryland Coach Lefty Driesell. "It was not a good time to get a technical and I felt bad about getting it."
But the Patriots only trailed 36-32 at the half. In the second half, no one ever led by more than four.
After Mike Winiecki put Richmond ahead, 48-44, George Mason ran off eight straight points to take a 52-48 lead with 6:03 to go in the game.
After Richmond tied it at 52, Rose made two baskets in a row for a 56-52 lead with 2:52 to go. But Newman and Greg Beckwith scored for Richmond to tie it again at 56.
Rose responded again with a 17-footer from the left wing with 1:41 and, after Richmond's Steve Kratzer missed the front end of a one-and-one with 1:26 left, Rose hit a running 12-footer to give Mason a 60-56 lead with 46 seconds left.
Rice followed a missed Richmond shot to make it 60-58 with 30 seconds left. With nine seconds left, Newman committed his fifth foul, sending Rose to the line, where he hit both ends of the one-and-one to give the Patriots a four-point lead.
Those were the final points for George Mason -- Rice hit a layup with two seconds left to account for the final score -- and the final frustration for Newman.
"I think we just managed to keep him off-balance," Rose said of Newman. "We were just able to put a body on him."
Getting physical is exactly what Navy's Robinson wasn't doing in the first half against UNC-Wilmington, when he took only four shots.
The Seahawks committed only three turnovers and shot 59 percent in the first half.
"I was happy just to be down five," said Navy Coach Paul Evans.
Actually, it was only 35-31, but his sentiment was correct.
He was also correct in the words he directed at Robinson. The big guy scored 16 points and grabbed 10 rebounds in the last 20 minutes.
"At halftime, Coach got on me about not playing physical," Robinson said. "They were letting us play, and I wasn't trying to post up as hard as I should have.
"I should have been dominating Brian. I have a little more experience, so I went out in the second half and acted like I'm supposed to. I posted harder, used my upper body and tried to get the ball more."
Robinson began the second half with three points, and Butler made a three-point play to regain the lead for Navy, at 37-35. But the Midshipmen didn't go ahead for good until 7:20 was left, when Robinson made a great catch on an alley-oop pass from Derric Turner for a basket and a 51-49 lead.
Butler's basket with 2:57 left gave Navy a 60-52 lead. But then the Midshipmen started getting careless. Two Navy turnovers and five Seahawks points cut it to 60-57.
With 1:26 left, Charles Cherry cut it to 61-60 for UNC-Wilmington with a free throw. Then Whitaker's pass went out of bounds off a UNC-Wilmington player with 44 seconds on the clock and five on the shot clock.
Freshman Greg Bender fouled Butler on the inbounds pass. Butler missed the free throw, but Robinson stepped in front of Rowsom, who committed his fifth foul going for the rebound. Robinson made the first of two for a 62-60 lead.
After a timeout, the Seahawks' Sandy Anderson tried one from the top of the key with about 10 seconds left that bounded into the hands of teammate Bobby Jo Springer.
He tried once from the base line and missed. He grabbed the loose ball and heaved it once more at the buzzer, but with no better result, and Navy's victory was secure.