CAA: VCU Set to Carry the League's Banner

By David Scott - March 05, 2007


RICHMOND - The Cinderella program of all Cinderella programs was two minutes and twenty-two seconds from returning to the Big Dance and reminding everyone of just what March Magic is all about.

Jim Larranaga's No. 6 seed George Mason Patriots led 57-52 over No. 1 seed and homestanding VCU and the headline writers were readying all sorts of recycled attention-getters to signify the scintillating four games in four days run of Mason, last year's NCAA Tournament sweetheart.

Then Eric Maynor got an urge.

"I felt like somebody had to make a play," said Maynor, the sophomore guard known mostly for his passing ability (sixth in the NCAA with 6.4 apg). "When I made it, it just relieved a lot out of me, we were down five and when I made that play. . ."

Maynor didn't have to finish the statement. When he made that play - a steal off of Dre Smith - he turned it into a 3-point play, cutting the Mason lead to two, 57-55. On the ensuing Mason possession, Maynor (20 points - nine in his incredible last two minutes - four assists and three steals) picked Gabe Norwood's pocket and made another lay-up to tie the score with 1:44 left in the game. The Rams (27-6) scored eight of the game's final ten points and punched their dance ticket with a pulsating 65-59 win over Mason before 11,200 at the Coliseum.

"Big players make big plays and Eric Maynor proved he's a big time player," said Larranaga, whose Patriots finish 18-15 and are a bordeline NIT possibility. "He stepped up and made huge defensive plays and converted those into lay-ups. He deserves a lot of credit, he's a special player."

If there's one coach in the nation about being special, it's Larranaga who turned last year's Final Four run into a lifetime of speaking engagements and TV opportunities (he joins CSTV this week for Tournament analysis). It's doubtful that Mason's mystical ride will ever be duplicated, but you can be sure VCU will be expected to try.

"Obviously every year is different, you can't take away what Mason did and the impact it had not only on this league but on college basketball," said VCU coach (and CAA Coach of the Year) Anthony Grant. "What Mason did last year was special. But I don't think anybody on our team is trying to duplicate what George Mason did. I think we're content being VCU and who we are."

'Who they are' is a swarnming, pressing, mid-major version of the defending national champion Florida Gators (where Grant was a 10-year assistant under Billy Donovan). On Monday night, they forced 16 Mason turnovers and turned them into 19 points and despite hitting just 1 of 12 3-pointers, the Ramswere still able to give their fans the cherished opportunity to storm the court for a national TV audience.

"There's nothing like it when the people come out and storm the court," said Maynor. "There's nothing like going dancing. Excited ain't the word, baby."

No, the word is "Champion." And soon, the word could be "Cinderella."

"We're not finished yet," said the gritty Jesse Pellot-Rosa who played all weekend with an injured right arch. "We've got a lot more damage to do."

Maybe VCU does want to be a bit like Mason, after all, beacuse damage is exactly what the Patriots did in last year's NCAA Tournament.

POST-GAME NOTES:

. . . The all-tournament team was headed by Tourney MOP, Maynor and included teammates Michael Anderson and Jesse Pellot-Rosa, in addition to Mason’s Folarin Campbell and Dre Smith as well as Drexel’s Frank Elegar.

. . . A very strong floor rush by the VCU faithful and it made for a nice picture on the ESPN broadcast.

. . . Maynor said he didn't truly care where he Rams are sent for the first and second rounds of the NCAA Tournament, but admitted, "I really want to go to North Carolina becasue that's weher I'm from (Fayetteville)."

. . . Some final thoughts from Larranaga on the "Year After":

"I think we were kind of a team with a bull's eye on its back and everybody gave a great effort aginst us. I think that Final Four banner was tattooed on everybody's bulletin board. I think the new kids were shell-shocked initially.

"Four of the top eight that played (Monday night) didn't play in a George Masoon unifrom last year, guys who are basiclaly new to the program and they had to deall with all these questions about the Final Four. The pressure these guys felt and the expectations created by others - they had a lot deal with."

On what he learned this season:

"I think I learned something I've always known and that is that every year is a different year, a different experience and you've just got to enjoy the journey.

. . . Classy Mason senior Gabe Norwood had this to say on the difference between last season and this one:

"I think it's tough to re-experience what we had last year, this (week) was our own little time to shine and we were making the most of it. It's hard to compare really beacuse it's two totally different platforms.

. . . Okay, that's it from Richmond. We're back to Boston for a couple of days and then hit Hotlanta for the SEC Tournament on Thursday. be sure to join us then and be sure to check back often at Hang Time, where live blogging is happening from now until "One Shining Moment" is played in Atlanta.

Posted by David Scott at 11:41 PM on March 05, 2007
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