RICHMOND — By halftime, the deficit was down to a manageable figure. Midway through the second half, as George Mason’s epic uprising continued, the margin had fallen into single digits.
“No matter how much we were down, we just kept fighting,” Morrison said. “We just wanted to chip away, chip away, chip away. At no point in the game we felt we couldn’t come back.”
The Patriots ultimately ran out of time and energy, falling to the Rams, 74-64, in the Colonial Athletic Association semifinals at raucous Richmond Coliseum. But the comeback won’t soon be forgotten.
Amid VCU’s fierce defense and perfect three-point shooting, the Patriots trailed 22-0, 27-2 and 32-4. They were still behind by 26 late in the first half when a rout became a rally.
The Patriots had two chances to make it a one-possession game, but Vertrail Vaughns and Jonathan Arledge missed three-pointers and the second-seeded Rams (27-6) sweated out the final minute to advance to Monday’s final against No. 1 Drexel.
The third-seeded Patriots (24-9) will await a possible NIT bid or entry into a third-tier tournament.
“I am very proud of how hard our guys battled to get back into the game,” said Coach Paul Hewitt, in his first season with George Mason. “I hope we have some games left because it’s really been a lot of fun and reinvigorating to work with these guys.”
It was the fourth consecutive season these teams had met in the tournament, with the Rams winning every time. It was also the third collision in three weeks between the rivals.
On this remarkable day, Morrison led the charge with 20 points, 11 rebounds and four blocked shots, offsetting a second straight weak performance by CAA player of the year Ryan Pearson (six points).
Andre Cornelius scored 15, and Arledge, in the finest performance of his two-year career, posted 10 points and 11 rebounds.
Bradford Burgess had 20 points for VCU, which made five three-pointers and forced eight turnovers in six-plus minutes to build the 22-0 lead. The Rams made their first eight three-pointers.
“It’s just one of those things that happens when a bunch of things collide,” Rams Coach Shaka Smart said. “Our guys were really into it. You could see the fire in their eyes and then we made a bunch of shots.”
The Patriots, meantime, started like this: turnover, miss, turnover, turnover, miss, turnover, miss, miss, miss, miss, turnover, turnover, turnover. There were traveling and palming calls, errant cross-court, outlet and inbounds passes, stumbling giveaways and a double-pump air ball.
“We weren’t ready at the start — that falls on me,” Hewitt said. “When they started hitting those threes, we should’ve made some adjustments.”
At the 13:25 mark, Sherrod Wright made two free throws, prompting a standing ovation from sadistic VCU fans. The first field goal took more than eight minutes — a dunk by Arledge.
The gulf was 28 when the Patriots awakened. Flawless free throw shooting, four blocked shots and a 17-5 run pulled them within 48-32 at the half. After the break, Cornelius’s three-pointer reduced the deficit to nine, and after Burgess answered with a three, Cornelius hit another long-distance shot.
Morrison’s bank shot trimmed it to seven, and later, his free throw cut it to six.
However, Vaughns tossed up an air ball with two minutes left and Arledge missed from distance.
“We all believed we could make some noise and win this game,” Arledge said. “We didn’t quite get there, but it was a great experience.”
●DREXEL 68, OLD DOMINION 51: Guards Frantz Massenat, Damion Lee and Chris Fouch combined for 53 points as the Dragons raced to a big lead and advanced to their first title game in nine years.
The Monarchs (20-13) needed almost six minutes to score against the Dragons’ rugged defense in falling behind 9-0 and 15-3. Fouch made three three-pointers in the first 10 minutes for Drexel, which led 27-17 at intermission. An 11-2 run early in the second half pushed the lead to 16.
Kent Bazemore, who had 37 points against Drexel last week, shot 6 of 20 and scored 12.