It's fun to say. It's more fun to chant with your entire student section. It's a great slogan for The Mid-Majority. It's become a recognized rallying cry for the college basketball underdog. But how often do we really, truly, believe it for every second of a game, no matter who the opponent may be, or what the game situation may be? In an electrifying 82 final seconds spanning the top of the 11-o'clock hour on Valentine's Day night, I and every other #CAAHoops fan were given another reminder to always believe (as if we needed one).
Our fairytale begins with 1:22 left on the clock. VCU and George Mason are tied at 51 apiece, with a share of first place in the CAA on the line. VCU senior leader Bradford Burgess, aptly nicknamed 'Big Shot Brad,' forced a Mason timeout by draining an open three pointer off of a Troy Daniels steal. Our four heroes for the Patriots will be introduced as we go.
Out of the timeout, Mason worked the clock before point guard Bryon Allen, not liking his other options, missed a three pointer. The rebound went to speedy VCU freshman Briante Weber, who was immediately fouled by Mike Morrison (his fifth) as he raced up the court.
43 seconds. VCU 56, Mason 51. (Morrison is an amazing team player. #ForTheTeam)
The Patriots, seemingly running out of answers, missed a mid-ranger jumper, again by Allen -- but this time Mason got the crucial rebound.
35 seconds. (I still believe!)
Enter Mason's senior leader, bearded forward Ryan Pearson, who may not have ever heard the definition of quitting. Accepting a crisp pass from a teammate, he knocked home a tightly contested, flat-footed three pointer.
30 seconds. VCU 56, Mason 54. (If Pearson isn't CAA player of the year, it's a crime. #FearTheBeard)
Now within a possession, the Patriots called timeout to set up their press and attempt to force a ten second violation. Failing, they fouled VCU guard Troy Daniels, who also made both free throws. Automatic.
21 seconds. VCU 58, Mason 54. (Oh no. I've seen this one before.)
Enter freshman Vaughn Gray, one of many raw talents on the deep George Mason bench. Taking a hand-off from Allen, he neatly stepped around a closing VCU defender to hit a long two-point jumper from the right baseline.
13 seconds. VCU 58, Mason 56. (Wow. Ice water in the veins of the freshman!)
Mason fouled Weber again, and he converted both free throws again (notice a pattern yet?). 10 seconds. VCU 60, Mason 56. ([Insert unintelligible rant about free throw shooting here.])
Enter sophomore Vertrail Vaughns, a 49% three-point shooter a year ago as a freshman. Picking the best of nights to end a cold streak, and with time running out, he caught a pass from Allen and fired.
Splash. Three points, Vaughns. (NO WAY! That did NOT just happen!)
4.2 seconds. VCU 60, Mason 59. (Umm, there's something special going on right now.)
Pearson went for the steal on the in-bounds and got it, but not before Gray was whistled for the immediate foul. And then Mason got their only break, as Weber (who else) missed the first free throw, before making the second. Suddenly, Mason had a chance to win outright.
Enter our protagonist, Sherrod Wright, Mason's redshirt sophomore sixth man and one of the CAA's best shooters (by percentages). With intended in-bounds recipient Bryon Allen tightly covered, Wright circled back, caught the inbounds near the far three point line, and streaked up the floor.
Dribble. Dribble. Dribble. Jump.
(Infinite suspense ... heart failure ... dramatic music ... etc.)
Wright leapt into the air from 30 feet out, hanging in space momentarily while his defender made a valiant effort at a block, and with a flick of the wrist, let fly the shot of his life.
Mason 62, VCU 61.
I don't really remember what happened after that. I remember hugging friends, random fans, and Ryan Pearson. I also remember not being able to hear my own voice, let alone be heard by anyone else. And I distinctly saw the decibel meter in the far corner, which invariably tops out no higher than 104, hit at least as loud as 108.
The entire game was a heavyweight fight worthy of the first-ever CAA meeting between two former Final Four teams, with neither contestant able to gain the upper hand for more than a few seconds, before the momentum would shift once more. With a 9 p.m. tip on a Tuesday night, the Patriot Center wasn't full, but what was lost in numbers was more than made up in energy. The Mason student section, including myself in my usual front row spot, was filled to capacity, and several hundred VCU fans, having made the two hour trek north, vocally inhabited the upper corners of the arena. To their credit, the VCU cheers and jeers became apart of the environment and drowning them out became a constant challenge for the Mason faithful.
The game had quite rightly been one of the most anticipated matchups all season, given the Final Four history, VCU's mastery of their northern neighbors in the CAA tournament, Mason's dominant 71-51 victory on VCU's home court last February, and VCU's upset 79-63 repayment in last year's conference tournament. In a strange way, each played a role in vaulting the other to an at-large bid to last year's NCAA tournament. But it's a new year, new players, and in Fairfax, a new coach.
The game began with an early 10-5 spurt for VCU, but after Mason point guard Allen's circus layup and free throw cut it to a two-point game, the two teams settled into a battle. The Patriots found themselves between two and four points behind for the entirety of the first half until Vaughns drained a three-pointer from the right corner to end the first half, exactly as he had done a year ago at VCU's Siegel Center. Despite nine turnovers forced by VCU's smothering press, the score stood at 28-27 in favor of George Mason at the intermission.
The second half was much of the same, with VCU retaking the lead but unable to create any separation in the first seven-plus minutes. Then, danger struck, as Daniels hit back-to-back three pointers and forward Juvonte Reddic added a pair of free throws. Suddenly VCU was up eight, 44-36.
The Patriots calmly seized the momentum right back, fueled by stingy defense and terrific defensive rebounding which held VCU without a point for over five minutes. Vaughns' third triple of the night capped an 11-0 Patriots run and put the home team back on top 46-44. Not to be deterred, Burgess knocked home a trey shortly before the three minute mark to tie the game at 51, and after two minutes of solid defense, added another for the 54-51 Rams lead.
From there, both teams executed to a combined perfection that I have never seen result from the end-game tactic of trading free throws for possession of the ball. Usually, a free throw line meltdown or ugly turnovers are necessary for any comeback to succeed. On this night, VCU went 7/8 from the line and didn't commit a single turnover in the final minute-plus. Mason, for their part, made their last 4 shots, all of them tightly defended, and none shorter than 18 feet.
Combined, the two teams scored 21 points in the final 82 seconds after scoring 102 in the first 38-plus minutes. If that's not absurd enough, consider this: In the final 30 seconds, there were 7 possessions, 3 fouls, 6 free throw attempts, 4 made baskets, and 16 points scored. Paul Westhead would be proud.
It was, without question, the most thrilling, dramatic end to any college basketball game I have ever attended. But don't just take my word for it, look at two of the faces of that moment. Retiring George Mason University President Alan Merten, 70 years young, somehow came away with the game ball out of the on-court scrum. Meanwhile, VCU coach Shaka Smart, whose team did everything they should have needed to do in order to win, was left to make one of the more classic faces of defeat you will ever see.
And the best part? Mason and VCU get to do it all again in a little over a week, on February 25 (ESPN2 at 6 p.m. ET) from Richmond, Va. (I will.)
at GEORGE MASON 62, VIRGINIA COMMONWEALTH 61 02/14/2012
VIRGINIA COMMONWEALTH 22-6 (13-3) -- D. Theus 5-11 1-2 11; J. Reddic 1-8 2-2 4; B. Burgess 5-12 0-1 13; T. Daniels 4-11 2-2 13; R. Brandenberg 4-7 1-2 9; B. Weber 0-0 5-6 5; D. Haley 1-3 0-0 2; T. Graham 1-6 2-2 4. Totals 21-58 13-17 61. GEORGE MASON 22-6 (14-2) -- R. Pearson 10-20 3-5 24; S. Wright 4-7 2-2 11; B. Allen 2-6 1-1 5; V. Vaughns 5-11 0-0 14; M. Morrison 0-4 1-2 1; A. Cornelius 1-4 0-0 2; E. Copes 0-1 0-0 0; C. Edwards 0-2 0-0 0; P. Bennett 1-2 1-2 3; V. Gray 1-2 0-0 2. Totals 24-59 8-12 62.
Three-point goals: VCU 6-21 (B. Burgess 3-8; T. Daniels 3-9; D. Theus 0-1; R. Brandenberg 0-1; T. Graham 0-2), GMU 6-17 (A. Cornelius 0-2; R. Pearson 1-4; V. Vaughns 4-7; S. Wright 1-2; B. Allen 0-1; C. Edwards 0-1); Rebounds: VCU 30 (T. Daniels 8), GMU 38 (R. Pearson 11); Assists: VCU 9 (D. Theus 6), GMU 12 (B. Allen 5); Total Fouls -- VCU 13, GMU 19; Fouled Out: VCU-None; GMU-M. Morrison.