Back in November, George Mason's Ricky Wilson had the opportunity to beat Maryland. He missed it, but he never forgot.
The 6-foot-3 senior guard exorcised that painful memory tonight. He swished a 17-foot jump shot with two seconds left to lift the Patriots to a 65-63 triumph over the Lamar Cardinals in the first round of the National Invitation Tournament.
"I haven't forgotten that Maryland game," said Wilson, referring to the 81-80 loss to the Terrapins. "Back then I had the shot to win with 13 seconds to play, but I didn't take it. This time I wanted the shot."
Wilson was in the spotlight well before his game-winning shot. He scored 15 of his 21 points in the second half to spark the Patriots from a nine-point deficit and make their first postseason appearance a success.
The next opponent for George Mason (20-11), site and date are to be determined.
"To win this game means so much for our school and our program," said Coach Joe Harrington. "It was a storybook finish. Ricky Wilson has been a four-year starter for us and has meant so much to our team. I can't think of anyone who's worked harder for this moment."
Wilson tied the game at 63 with 41 seconds left on two free throws. Rob Rose forced Lamar into a turnover on the inbounds play, but Rose was whistled for a charging foul with 26 seconds to go.
Lamar never got off a shot, however. Forward Ed Manuel threw the ball away with nine seconds left, and Wilson never hesitated. He put up the shot over a confused Cardinal defense to silence a Montagne Center crowd of 5,889.
"I felt we could get a good shot. That's why I didn't call a timeout," Harrington said.
"Coach Harrington had told us that when we're in that position to go ahead and make the best of it," said Wilson. "Besides, I had Kenny [Sanders] on my left and Rob on my right. It was just like a fast break. If someone had come out on me, I would've kicked it out to Kenny."
Wilson was only one of the heroes in the Patriots' stirring comeback. Sanders, a 6-5 freshman, battled the taller Cardinals for 23 points and 13 rebounds. The 6-6 Rose scored 13 points and grabbed six rebounds, and 6-7 junior Tracy Battle left the bench to snare seven rebounds.
Lamar, making its eighth consecutive postseason appearance, led, 36-29, at halftime and by 48-39 with 13:29 to play. But the Patriots surged to 52-52. Wilson scored three consecutive baskets in that span.
Lamar built its lead back up to 60-54 with 5:04 to play. But Rose hit from the top of the key, Wilson converted a three-point play, and two free throws by Sanders with 1:37 remaining got a 61-61 tie.
The Cardinals of the Southland Conference relied on 6-9 junior Anthony Todd's 23 points and 6-11 senior Greg Anderson's 10 points and 10 rebounds.
The Patriots shot only .375 during the first 20 minutes, but stayed close because of Sanders. He scored 16 points, including 12 during a 10-minute stretch.
"We never got ourselves going in the first half," said Wilson. "But in the second half we decided to play a street game. It looked bad, but we got Lamar running."
George Mason outrebounded Lamar, 35-34, and forced 10 turnovers in the second half.
Lamar finished 18-12, ending its string of seven 20-victory seasons. UCLA Eliminated
In the highlight of the night's other NIT action around the nation, Cal-Irvine's Anteaters, who beat Nevada-Las Vegas twice this season, knocked off NIT defending champion UCLA, 80-74. Johnny Rogers scored 29 points including a go-ahead jumper with 2:16 to go in the Bruins' Pauley Pavilion.