George Mason University men’s basketball fans should not be too disheartened as a result of the Patriots’ 98-66 blowout loss at the hands of Ohio State in a second round, East Bracket game of the NCAA Tournament last Sunday evening in Cleveland.
Afterall, the Patriots (27-7) experienced one of their best seasons ever and were going up against a powerful Buckeyes’ squad that is strong both inside and outside the paint and considered by many to be the best team in the country.
Mason faithful should focus on the thrill of the Patriots’ extraordinary round one tournament win over Villanova two days earlier, a dramatic 61-57 come-from-behind thriller in which coach Jim Larranaga’s squad looked to be all but finished late in the contest when it trailed by six with two minutes remaining.
Making the NCAA tourney is difficult enough, even with an expanded field of 68 teams. But to get there and then win even one game, unless you are a perennial juggernaut such as Kansas, Kentucky, North Carolina, Duke, or Michigan State, is a remarkable feat. Yes, Mason would have loved to have knocked off Ohio State, much like the Patriots eliminated some of the nation’s top teams at the 2006 NCAA Tournament when they shocked the country by reaching the Final Four.
But sometimes just being there, in a second round game, to face the big boys, such as Ohio State, is enough. Maybe Patriot followers, in regards to the lopsided defeat, can take some solace in the fact that Mason actually led the Buckeyes 11-2 early on.
George Mason, in the win over the Wildcats of Villanova, experienced a little bit of NCAA tourney glory. In front of a packed crowd at the Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland, the Patriots gave the crowd, made up mostly of Ohio State fans on hand to see who their heroes would play in the second round, a firsthand view of what has made George Mason basketball a national icon ever since the magical ride of ’06 – its ability to win big games in clutch fashion down the stretch.
<b>THE GREEN AND GOLD</b>, which were behind by as many as 10 points earlier in the game, trailed the ‘Cats late 54-48 and looked to be in serious trouble. But sixth man sensation Isaiah Tate drained a huge three-point basket from the left corner to pull the Patriots within 54-51 with just under two minutes remaining. One possession later, after Villanova missed two free throws, a basket by Mason’s Ryan Pearson, while he was being fouled, got the Patriots within a point. He converted the foul shot and the game was tied at 54.
Following several sequences in which both teams had chances to take the lead, Mason front court player Mike Morrison brought the house down with a thunderous slam dunk basket off a teammates’ missed shot. Mason, amazingly, led 56-54 with 55 seconds left.
But Tate, whose three-ball had gotten his team back into the game moments earlier, committed a foul as Villanova’s Corey Fisher was shooting a three-pointer. The foul was totally frustrating for Mason fans because it was one of those Cardinal Sin mistakes of basketball that should not be made. After Fisher, looking amazingly calm, made all three free throws, the Patriots, who seconds before had taken their first lead since early in the game, were down 57-56, with 31 seconds left.
At that point, Mason fans, even though their team was still quite alive, had to be hurting for Tate, who looked as if he might be the goat if the Patriots lost. But Luke Hancock made one of the more memorable baskets in Mason history when he drained a three-pointer to put Mason ahead to stay, 59-57, with 19 ticks left. Villanova, in a flurry of action in the final seconds, ultimately missed a baseline shot. Hancock, fittingly, ended up with the loose ball and, as the final seconds were coming off the clock, passed the ball down court to Morrison, who put the final exclamation on the game with a slam dunk breakaway.
Instead of what seemed at one point near game’s end to be a likely first round loss and a tough mistake (Tate’s foul) that would live with a player forever, the Patriots were all heroes and, for that moment at the final buzzer, the darlings of the NCAA.