Sunday, March 4, 2012

Missed Free Throws and Heartbreak in Richmond (Recap of Georgia State vs. George Mason CAA Quarterfinal)

In the last game of the first round on Friday night, Georgia State absolutely hammered Hofstra in the largest margin of victory ever in the CAA Tournament.  Having witnessed the carnage in person, I honestly thought the Panthers were just at the beginning of making a serious statement in the CAA Tournament.

During the season, Georgia State had struggled from the free throw line.  But in their first round game vs. Hofstra, they shot twenty of twenty four from the charity stripe, which was much better than their season average of sixty five percent.  Even during the first round post game press conference, Coach Ron Hunter joked about how well they shot their free throws Friday night.

So when they took the court for their quarterfinal game against #3 seed George Mason,  Georgia State was looking to take it to the Patriots, a team they barely lost to in Fairfax, Virginia.  With the large contingent of Mason fans at the Richmond Coliseum, it probably seemed to the Panthers like they were playing in Fairfax again.

The teams played evenly for the first few minutes.  Then Georgia State's half court trap defense started forcing turnovers on George Mason.  The Panthers went on a 13-2 run and went up 22-11 with about nine and half minutes left in the first half.  Georgia State was playing as well as they did against Hofstra.

But Mason would respond.  They chipped away at the lead, scoring in the paint, while holding the Panthers to one of ten from the field over a seven minute span.   After Ryan Pearson hit a layup, the Patriots were only down three 28-25.  But Georgia State hit a tip in and the Panthers went up 30-25 at the half.

One of the best things about watching a tournament game involving George Mason is their absolutely terrific pep band.  Their band leader, the energetic and very cool looking Doc Nix leads them in some terrific numbers.  "Kashmir" is played with a violin lead that Jimmy Page would be proud to hear.  And as much as I am not a Bonjovi fan, the band's version of "Living on a Prayer" is awesome.

At the start of the second half, Georgia State had multiple chances to extend their lead.  But they couldn't take advantage of the free throw line.  In the first ten minutes, Josh Micheaux missed three free throws.  Eric Buckner and James Fields also each missed a free throw during this time.  Their old "achilles heel" as Ron Hunter would later say in the post game news conference had come back to haunt them.

As a result, George Mason inched their way back into the game.  They tied the game at forty. Then, they took the lead, 44-43, for the first time since six minutes into the first half.  The Patriots would eventually extend the lead to six, 52-46 on a resounding dunk by Sherrod Wright with a little less than seven and a half minutes remaining.

But there were storm clouds for the Patriots.   Pearson, the CAA Player of the Year, picked up his fourth foul and Morrison shortly thereafter picked up his fourth.   As a result, Georgia State chipped away and had a chance to tie the game with two free throws with a little under three and a half minutes left.  But Buckner again missed a free throw and the Panthers were still down one, 56-55.

After Andre Cornelius buried a three to extend Mason's lead to four, Buckner again had a chance to cut the lead.  But he missed the first attempt on an one and the bonus free throw attempt.  The lead was still 59-55.
However, Mason's luck was about to change.  Pearson picked up his fifth foul and shortly thereafter, so did Morrison.  The Patriots were without their two starting big men.  All that was left was for Georgia State to capitalize.

The Panthers did, scoring the next four points off of turnovers.  James Fields' steal off of the Patriots' Paris Bennett tied the game at fifty nine with thirty three seconds left.  Mason would get the ball with the shot clock turned off.

Paul Hewitt called timeout with eighteen seconds left in the game.  The ball was inbounded to Byron Allen, a sophomore point guard.  He dribbled around then drove the lane.  Buckner, the best shot blocker in the CAA went to block  Allen's shot.  But Allen went underneath the hoop and Buckner avoided him, trying not to pick up the foul.   Allen put up a reverse layup attempt and the ball bounced high off the glass and in.

Cue crowd eruption.  For some reason, I decided to record the last play and I posted the above video. There was 3.4 seconds left on the clock and in Georgia State's season.

After two timeouts, the Panthers desperation three missed and George Mason had a thrilling 61-59 win.  The Patriots made a perfect sweep for the higher quarterfinal seeds on the day for the CAA Tournament for the second year in a row.

During the post game conference, Coach Hunter could barely speak, tears welled in his eyes.  He was so proud of his team's effort.  He spoke about the missed free throws, their "achilles heel".  The Panthers had eighteen more free throw attempts than the Patriots, but only hit on ten more free throws.

Coach Hunter spoke so intensely about his team's heart, how he never saw a more hungry team in his years of coaching.   He wanted to have his team play one more game, since six of his players are seniors.   You could tell that the Georgia State players and their coach left their heart on the court.

Afterwards, my friend Jerry Beach, aka Defiantly Dutch and I went over and shook hands with Coach Hunter.   He hoped his team would make the CBI or CIT because with twenty one wins they deserved that opportunity.   Coach Hunter was very cordial and even got a laugh when we reminded him about his former IUPUI team beating up on Hofstra in the CBI in 2010.  He said "You remember that?' as if no one would probably remember a game where 953 people showed up.

He said "Thank you for the support", and went off.  After watching his team the last two days and the post game conferences in which he spoke so honestly and passionately, I have a very profound respect for Coach Hunter.  I could see why his team bought into him in his first season of coaching the Panthers.

Part of me wishes his team had one more game to play today.

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