Wake Forest 83,
George Mason 78
College football teams will play on Saturday afternoon. Leaves will fall, and Thanksgiving plans will be made.
For a few hours Friday night, though, it sure seemed more like March than November.
George Mason's near miss against No. 18 Wake Forest, an 83-78 loss in the 2K Sports College Hoops Classic, carried all the trademark signs of a percolating NCAA tournament upset.
There were the suit-and-tie-wearing assistant coaches hopping up and down with delight. There were the bench warmers holding each other off the court, grinning from ear to ear. There was the favorite -- Wake Forest -- turning over the ball with abandon, and the underdog -- George Mason -- converting those turnovers into fast-break points. There were the underdogs' fans, wearing yellow wigs and gesturing with giant foam hands as their team embarked on a massive second-half comeback. There was, naturally, overtime.
For George Mason, the heartbreak came in the usual manner at such affairs. Wake Forest made its free throws (10 of 13) in overtime and the Patriots' outside shots finally stopped finding happy landings.
By that point, Patriots backup point guard Gabe Norwood was sitting as a spectator on media row, his left ankle heavily taped after a second-half fall. Sophomore forward Will Thomas and sophomore point guard Folarin Campbell were both on the bench, having fouled out in the extra session.
And as Wake Forest finally celebrated its win -- which earned the Demon Deacons a trip next week to Madison Square Garden for the tournament's semifinal round -- the Patriots sat glumly and watched.
"It's very, very difficult coming that close to victory, that close to Madison Square Garden, that close to beating an ACC team on their home court," George Mason Coach Jim Larranaga said. "So right now it's very painful for me, my staff and our players."
That the Patriots had plenty of opportunities only increased their disappointment. They were up by one late in the second half, until Wake Forest 6-foot-9 forward Chris Ellis hit his third three-pointer of the night. They had the ball with one minute left in regulation and the score tied but failed to convert. They missed their first five shots in overtime. And for the night, they shot just 57 percent from the free throw line.
"One or two shots would have made a difference in the game," said George Mason senior Tony Skinn, who led all scorers with 23 points. "Unfortunately, we got ourselves in a hole and we had to fight back."
As far as untangling that sizable comeback, it went something like this. Wake Forest took a 15-point lead into halftime and soon expanded it to 19. Then the Patriots stepped up their defensive pressure and the lead began to disappear.
With 11 minutes left, as the injured Norwood was helped off the court, the lead was down to eight. When Lamar Butler and Skinn hit back-to-back three-pointers with four minutes left, the lead was down to one.
And as the Patriots rallied, Wake Forest -- with former point guard Chris Paul now playing in the NBA -- could not hang on to the ball. Paul's successor, Justin Gray, committed 10 of his team's 20 turnovers, and George Mason scored 24 points off Wake Forest miscues.
"You don't have to be Jimmy Naismith to know we need to work a little bit more against pressure," Wake Forest Coach Skip Prosser said.
His team had certain advantages, though, that never disappeared. The announced crowd of 14,665 got back in the game as the lead vanished, helping the Demon Deacons win their 18th consecutive home game. Wake Forest's size advantage increased with George Mason's injuries and foul troubles; 6-5 forward Trent Strickland, who had 18 points and 11 rebounds, kept alive a rebound early in overtime that helped Wake Forest go ahead by three.
Still, while it's only November, Prosser declared George Mason to be "a postseason team," and the Patriots agreed.
"On any given floor, any given night, anywhere, we can beat anybody," Skinn said. "We showed that we got what it takes."