With 5.8 seconds left, George Mason and Richmond found themselves knotted at 64-all. The Patriots retained possession after a Spiders foul, and guard Sherrod Wright inbounded to point guard Corey Edwards, who drove the right side of the lane, then suddenly spun and passed out to Wright.
The redshirt junior has become known for hitting big shots, and he rose and fired, absorbing a collision with his defender, to swish a three-pointer as the horn sounded. With the soft smack of leather against nylon, a long streak of futility at the Richmond Coliseum ended for the Patriots.
By way of introduction, I'm a George Mason student and diehard Patriots basketball fan. I'll be writing about George Mason and the CAA here for the rest of the season. This is the holiday-delayed first installment of what I hope will be a regular contribution. Thanks, Gary!
The city of Richmond, and especially its Coliseum, has not been kind to the team from Fairfax. Mason has won many games in the Coliseum against other out-of-town guests, but when faced with a hometown squad, they always seemed to lose. The CAA tournament has been held at the Richmond Coliseum every season since 1990, with Richmond participating up until 2000, and VCU participating from 1996 until last March. In that entire time, Mason never won a single game against either school in conference tournament play.
Even in their best years, playing the Coliseum has been a struggle. The two best teams in Patriots history, the 2006 Final Four team and the 2011 Round of 32 team, both earned at-large NCAA bids after crushing conference tournament losses (to Hofstra, and to VCU, respectively).
The Patriots had fared slightly better at the Coliseum in the regular season, most recently defeating VCU in February 1999. However, with the Spiders departing for the A-10 after the 2001 season (not to face Mason again until this past Saturday) and with the Rams relocating to the Siegel Center for 2000-01, the futility streak expanded to regular season play.
After a decade of painful losses, Mason finally broke through at the Siegel Center in February 2011, with a 71-51 shellacking of the Rams on national television (improbably, this loss awakened a sleeping giant, and Shaka Smart's squad went to the Final Four barely a month later).
But the Coliseum streak continued, right through the 2012 CAA tournament. Mason went home early from Richmond last March, falling to VCU on a supposedly neutral court for the fourth year in a row and the sixth time in the last nine tournaments. With VCU departing in the offseason for the A-10, and the CAA tournament shifting to Baltimore after one final hurrah this coming March, that could have been the end of the story. However, one last opportunity presented itself, with the establishment of the Governor’s Classic. The Patriots were chosen to face Richmond (for the first time since 2001!) in the early game, with Old Dominion versus Virginia to follow.
The pregame scouting reports should have been fairly simple. Richmond came in having taken 32 three-point attempts earlier in the week against Kansas, and shooting 38% from long range for the season. The Patriots, meanwhile, entered having consistently been ranked as one of the top teams in the country at defending two point field goals, yet one of the worst at defending against the three.
Richmond took full advantage, hitting two treys in the first minute and sinking eight of their first ten attempts from beyond the arc. Darien Brothers was especially hot, beginning the game five-for-five. In fact, with all their hot shooting from the outside, the Spiders did not score a two-point basket until over 15 minutes into the game.
On the Patriots side, leading scorer Sherrod Wright (Mason’s only double figure scorer at over 16 per game) kept Mason in the game early. The junior accounted for 11 of Mason’s first 21 points, including a sequence in which he made a layup, stole the inbound pass right under the basket, and dunked to tie the score at 11.
Offense was in style early, and after about 9 minutes of trading baskets, the game was tied at 21. Each team began to make defensive adjustments, and Mason’s offense bogged down as Wright faced additional pressure, while Richmond was forced to start to look inside for points. Sloppy play and turnovers on both sides slowed the pace, with Richmond pulling away late to lead 41-32 at the half.
With the final seconds ticking down for Mason, in a foreshadowing of coming events, Sherrod Wright forced up a long three-pointer, which missed everything, and may have been tipped. It dropped into the arms of freshman Patriot Marko Gujanicic, who alertly laid it up, albeit milliseconds too late to count.
The second half was defined by three major runs. First, Mason came out with a renewed focus to defend the three, especially against leading scorers Darien Brothers and Derrick Williams. Defensive intensity and some timely hot shooting fueled an 11-3 Mason run to cut the deficit to 44-43 with 16 minutes to play.
Momentum shifted as Mason’s offensive ground to a stop again, victimized by turnovers and poor shooting, while the Mason defense fouled Richmond five times in about a minute and a half. The run was finally stopped by a Patrick Holloway jumper and a Corey Edwards uncontested layup, but not before an 12-2 run had given the Spiders a 12 point lead with 7:31 to play.
It seemed likely that Mason had expended all their energy in closing the initial gap at the start of the half, and that the game was now slipping away. Instead, Richmond opened the door, as over the next few minutes Edwards drew a charge, then Trey Davis missed a pair of free throws, then Richmond committed four turnovers against Mason’s full court pressure and missed two rushed three-point attempts.
Mason took what they were given, as Wright’s three-pointer made it a seven point game, then Edwards and Anali Okoloji scored in transition cut the deficit to three. Back-to-back turnovers by Wright slowed the comeback, however Richmond got only a single Darien Brothers (20 points) made free throw from the miscues. With two minutes to play, the Spiders still clung to a four point advantage, 62-58.
The sophomore Edwards, who has emerged as Mason’s new starting point guard in recent weeks (an ever-revolving position for the Patriots, dating back to the beginning of last season), came up with a big steal for the Patriots. The ball found it’s way into the hands of the sweet-shooting Holloway, who promptly knocked down a trey, cutting the Richmond lead to one, 62-61, with 1:53 to play.
Spiders forward Alonzo Nelson-Ododa promptly turned the ball over again, and Jonathan Arledge stuck back Edwards' miss for the Patriots first lead of the game, 63-62. Spiders coach Chris Mooney called timeout, but he was powerless to stop his team’s collapse, as Greg Robbins lost control of the ball on a drive to the basket seconds later.
Robbins fouled Edwards in the act of shooting, and the point guard converted one of two free throws for a 64-62 Mason lead with 54 seconds to play. Richmond walked the ball up the court, running as much clock as they could. Derrick Williams (14 points) missed a three-pointer, but teammate Cedrick Lindsay was there to put it back and tie the score with 19.8 seconds to play.
Mason had been in these tight end game situations many times already this season, with mixed results (a blown five point lead to New Mexico in the final 12 seconds looms especially large), and inconsistency in such situations surely played a role in the demotion of former starting point guard Bryon Allen. This time, the Patriots could not be denied. The Spiders had a foul to give, and they used it with 5.8 seconds to go. Paul Hewitt used Mason’s final time out, and from there, Edwards (career-high 13 points) ran the designed play to perfection.
Mason’s defensive pressure, compounded by unforced Spiders miscues, allowed the Patriots to close the game on an 18-3 run and win the contest at the buzzer, as Wright (22 points) replicated his walk off heroics from last February’s win over VCU. If there had been any question previously, it was now crystal clear: Sherrod Wright is The Man for Mason.
For me personally, and for a lot of Patriots fans, a burden was also lifted that afternoon. A regular season win, even such an important and exciting one, can't undo all those years of conference tournament heartache. Only cutting down the nets this March, on what should finally be a truly neutral court, can begin to do that. But we don't have to dread the Coliseum anymore.