The George Mason-VCU semifinal was the 56th Division I game I had covered live this season. It perhaps might be the most memorable one from start to finish. I can probably say beyond a shadow of a doubt that no one expected the first nine minutes of the game. But given the first nine minutes of the game, I can also say that likely no one expected the last 31 minutes of the game either.
After Drexel had soundly defeated ODU in the warmup act, the headliner was a matchup between two CAA rivals with a long rivalry. The Rams had knocked the Patriots out of the CAA Tournament the last two years. Last year was the most memorable, as VCU upset George Mason, the regular season champion, in the semifinals. It's quite likely that win helped the Rams make the First Four. We all know what happened from there.
Now with a sold-out crowd made up mostly of VCU fans, but with a large contingent of Mason fans as well, there was this third act. The Richmond Coliseum was loud. And to add the cherry on top of an amazing atmosphere, the two best pep bands in the Colonial were taking turns getting their fans in a frenzy.
Mason won the tip, but immediately turned the ball over as Darius Theus stole the ball and hit a layup to put VCU up 2-0. This would become the common theme for the first nine minutes. Another steal, another layup. 4-0 Rams. Then Troy Daniels buried a three to make it 7-0. Another steal by Rob Brandenberg leads to his dunk. 9-0. Burgess with three straight three-pointers, the third resulting in him shaking his head down the court. 18-0 VCU.
After Mike Morrison turned the ball over again, which was George Mason's seventh turnover in not even six minutes, Daniels buried another three-pointer. Six minutes gone by, Rams up 21-0. Timeout, Patriots.
The VCU fans in attendance that had been loud already, were now at the point of reaching all-time record decibal levels of noise. It was deafening. Those of us that were sitting on press row, we were stunned. VCU hit all five of their three-point attempts. Mason couldn't even get the ball down the court.
After the timeout, Brandenberg hit one of two free throws to put the Rams up 22-0. The Patriots finally got their first two points on free throws by Sherrod Wright. The 22-point run had ended. But VCU wasn't quite finished yet.
A Reddic layup was followed by another three pointer by Brandenberg. Jonathan Arledge finally got Mason's first basket on a dunk. However, Treveon Graham followed with a three pointer for the Rams. Two Theus free throws made the score 32-4 with a little more than nine minutes left.
That wasn't a misprint. VCU was leading a 24-win George Mason team 32-4 after nine minutes of action. To put that in perspective, I had seen Iona score 31 straight points against St Peter's exactly seven days before that. As impressive as that was, this was more impressive. St Peter's was the ninth-place team in the MAAC. George Mason was the third-place team in the CAA and basically the same team that made it to the round of 32 in the NCAA Tournament last season.
Only one word described how I felt sitting in my seat: surreal.
It looked quite likely that VCU was going to break Georgia State's tournament record from Friday night for largest margin of victory in a CAA Tournament game, 35 points (Georgia State defeated Hofstra 85-50 in the first round of the CAA Tournament that Friday). The situation was desperate for George Mason, and Patriots' coach Paul Hewitt desperately tried hockey line substitution changes to get his team into a groove. It looked like the story had been set by the first nine minutes.
But someone forgot to tell George Mason that.
The Patriots' comeback started slowly. Though they still committed a few more turnovers, Mason for the most part was able to get the ball up the court finally and hit some shots. VCU though kept pace with them for the next six minutes and the lead was still 26, 46-20 with five minutes left in the half.
Then the Rams went cold from beyond the arc, missing their last five three-point attempts. This allowed the Patriots, led by Morrison and Arledge, to go on a 12-2 run to end the half. It was now a "respectable" 16-point deficit at the half, 48-32.
If George Mason was going to cut the lead further, they had to cut out the turnovers. They had 12 turnovers in the first half, which led to 17 points for VCU, which had only one turnover. Thus the points off turnovers was in favor of the Rams 17-0.
The second half started out with Mason and VCU basically holding serve. After six minutes, the Rams' lead was fifteen, 55-40. The Patriots had not helped themselves, committing three more turnovers in that span.
But Hewitt made a change that ultimately helped Mason. He had Andre Cornelius now lead the point, which brought them needed quickness against VCU. Cornelius and Morrison combined to score all of Mason's points during their 12-4 run which cut the VCU deficit into half, 59-52 with about seven a half minutes left. The George Mason fans roared in approval.
The Patriots' cut the lead a little further. After Morrison, who was dominant the last twenty five minutes of the game, hit two free throws, the Rams were now only ahead 64-58 with three minutes left. What had been a 28-point lead had whittled down to six. A lot of credit was due to the Patriots' second-half defense, which held the Rams to 26 percent shooting in the second half.
Mason had a chance to cut the lead further, but they missed four consecutive shots over two possessions. They couldn't cut the lead any further. VCU scored eight of their last 10 points on free throws. The Rams would hold onto a 74-64 win.
Big Shot Burgess led VCU with 20 points, whild Daniels added 17. They combined to shoot 9-of-17 from beyond the arc. Brandenberg added 14 points, while Juvonte Reddic scored 12 points. Morrison and Arledge each had double-doubles for George Mason. Morrison had 20 points and 11 rebounds, while Arledge had 10 points and 11 rebounds. Cornelius added 15 points.
After watching two terrific games in front of a raucous, sold-out crowd of over 11,000 people, I was convinced that there would be a great championship game with what I thought was two definite NCAA tournament teams. I wasn't able to stay for the championship game, because I had to get back to New York. But I got to see it the next night on TV. It lived up to the billing.
at VIRGINIA COMMONWEALTH 74, GEORGE MASON 64 03/04/2012
GEORGE MASON 24-9 (14-4) -- D. Hudson 2-10 1-4 5; M. Morrison 8-13 4-6 20; A. Cornelius 4-10 4-6 15; V. Vaughns 1-6 2-2 5; S. Wright 2-3 2-2 6; B. Allen 1-7 0-0 2; R. Pearson 2-3 2-2 6; J. Arledge 3-8 4-4 10; V. Gray 0-0 0-0 0; C. Edwards 0-0 0-0 0. Totals 21-50 18-22 64. VIRGINIA COMMONWEALTH 27-6 (15-3) -- T. Daniels 4-8 5-6 17; D. Theus 1-7 3-4 5; R. Brandenberg 5-8 3-5 14; B. Burgess 6-15 3-5 20; J. Reddic 4-6 4-6 12; B. Weber 0-1 0-0 0; T. Graham 1-3 1-2 4; D. Haley 1-4 0-0 2; D. Hinton 0-0 0-0 0; T. Okereafor 0-0 0-0 0; J. Guest 0-0 0-0 0. Totals 22-52 19-28 74.
Three-point goals: GMU 4-14 (A. Cornelius 3-6; V. Vaughns 1-5; S. Wright 0-1; B. Allen 0-1; J. Arledge 0-1), VCU 11-25 (B. Burgess 5-10; T. Daniels 4-7; D. Theus 0-2; R. Brandenberg 1-4; T. Graham 1-2); Rebounds: GMU 38 (M. Morrison 11), VCU 20 (T. Daniels 6); Assists: GMU 8 (S. Wright 3), VCU 11 (D. Theus 7); Total Fouls -- GMU 23, VCU 18; Fouled Out: GMU-V. Vaughns; VCU-None.