FAIRFAX, VA – ‘Virginia Is For Lovers’ – at least according to the state’s travel slogan.
So with that in mind, who better to put on a Valentine’s Day show than the last two programs in the state to reach the Final Four?
Well as George Mason and Virginia Commonwealth would easily prove on Tuesday night, nobody can put on a show quite like the dueling Cinderellas from the Colonial Athletic Association.
After trailing for almost the entire game, George Mason heeded the words of Coach Paul Hewitt and escaped the matchup of first-place CAA teams in dramatic fashion when Sherrod Wright drained a 27-footer as time expired in the Patriots 62-61 victory over intrastate rivals VCU at the Patriot Center.
The Patriots (22-6, 14-2) remained in a first-place tie with Drexel atop the CAA standings in winning their 18th -straight conference home game. VCU (22-6, 13-3) saw its eleven game winning streak, the seventh longest in the country, snapped with the buzzer beater.
“Be there at the end, just be there at the end,” George Mason Coach Paul Hewitt drilled into his player’s heads before arguably their most important game of the season.
George Mason looked to be down and out after Bradford Burgess (13 points) hit his third three-pointer of the night to give VCU a 54-51 advantage with 1:20 remaining in a game where points were few and far between thanks to the defensive pressure exerted by both teams.
But then something changed. The game turned offensive, but in a good way for the home team.
Briante Weber (five points) sank two free throws to extend the Rams lead to 56-51 with 43 seconds to go in the contest.
Ryan Pearson (24 points, eleven rebounds) connected on a three-pointer with 29 seconds remaining after missing his first three attempts from that distance badly. Troy Daniels responded with another two VCU free throws to keep the lead at 58-54.
Unable to get off another three-pointer with the time ticking away, Vaughn Gray had to settle for a long two, which he made for his only basket, to bring the score back to within two at 58-56 with just eleven seconds left in the game.
Again Weber made his free throws but the Patriots immediately answered with Vertrail Vaughn’s fourth three-pointer of the night to cut the Rams lead to 60-59 with six seconds.
George Mason quickly fouled with just 3.8 seconds remaining but VCU Coach Shaka Smart knew it was an eternity.
“I kept looking at the clock thinking it’s a little too much,” Coach Smart said about the late game situation.
“I wish it was 2.8 or 1.8 because a good player can go the length of the floor and get a good shot off.”
Smart was right on both accounts.
Weber would split the pair, missing the first and giving George Mason one last chance. The Patriots didn’t have a timeout but it was a situation they had practiced time and time again.
“If there’s 3.8 seconds, you have three dribbles,” Coach Paul Hewitt said about his late game philosophy.
The final play was drawn up for Bryon Allen (five points, five rebounds) but he wasn’t available so Pearson improvised and inbounded the ball to Wright, beating the five-second call.
Hearing his coach’s words in his head, the reserve guard, who Coach Hewitt feels is really a sixth starter, took his three dribbles and drained the game-winner past the outstretched arms of VCU’s Rob Brandenberg.
The referees went to the monitor to make sure Wright got the shot off in time but the 6,734 in attendance knew it was good as they went into the type of delirious celebration normally reserved for games played next month. The games played in March.
“I made the shot of my dreams,” Wright said grinning ear to ear.
So when did Coach Hewitt know the shot had a chance to go in?
“I was just focused on his face,” Coach Hewitt said about using Wright’s face as a barometer for success.
“He looked confident when he went up to shoot the ball. He looked like he shot that ball like he meant it.”
Wright finished with eleven points, five rebounds, and three assists to join Vaughns (14 points) and Pearson in double figures. For Pearson it was his eleventh double-double of the season.
Up Next: George Mason hosts Lamar (16-9, 7-4) from the Southland Conference on Saturday as part of ESPN’s Bracket Busters slate of games.
Patriots Notes: Ryan Pearson passed Florian Campbell to move into a seventh-place tie with Will Thomas on the school’s all-time scoring list with 1,564 points.