FAIRFAX, Va.--With 3.8 seconds left to go in Tuesday night's battle for a share of first place in the Colonial Athletic Association between George Mason and Virginia Commonwealth, VCU's Briante Weber missed the first of two free throws with his team up 60-59. On the sidelines, Weber's head coach, Shaka Smart, had a decision to make. There were 3.8 seconds left and George Mason had no timeouts.Smart, on the other hand, had one in his back pocket.
"I thought about two things," Smart said after the game. "I thought about missing and I thought about calling timeout. I didn't call timeout because I didn't want Mason to be able to diagram a play where they threw it to maybe halfcourt where they had more time and more space. You know, I liked where they inbounded the ball. If the same situation happened again, that's where we'd want to inbound the ball. Maybe if we told him to miss, a little more time would have run off the clock. Just looking at it, 3.8 seconds was too much time to order a miss.
"I preferred a two-point lead to a one-point lead in that situation."
Smart played the probabilities. Weber, an 80 percent foul shooter, made the second foul shot. George Mason set up an inbound play that was originally designed to get the ball to Bryon Allen and let him get inside for a game-tying layup.
"That was the play, since we were only down two, to try and get a quick basket," said Ryan Pearson, who had a tremendous game (24 points and 11 rebounds), but was reduced to a spectator in the crucial moment. "[Allen] was totally denied. I couldn't get it to him, so I pump-faked the pass. I was almost falling over the line, but then Sherrod saw me and he came back, and he was the first person I saw, so I just threw it to him."
Wright caught the pass and remembered what his coach, Paul Hewitt, had said.
"Coach always stresses that you have this many dribbles in this time, two dribbles in this time, and he says to always be aware of that," Wright said. "So, with 3.8 left, I knew I had at least three dribbles, so I took my three dribbles and let it go."
And here's what happened next. Wright's 25-footer went in. George Mason joined Drexel atop the CAA standings, with the Dragons holding the head-to-head tiebreaker. Smart's probability play had failed.
It was an exhilarating ending to a game that started at 120 miles per hour and never let up. The crowd of 6,734, which included a raucous George Mason student section and a large VCU contingent, was never given a moment to catch its breath. Not even the lengthy media timeouts offered respite, as the Green Machine pep band upped the intensity by upping the tempo, blasting out a double-time version of "Livin' on a Prayer."
"Both teams played with great energy," Smart said. "That's the thing about playing George Mason; they'll play up and down with you."
On the court, the aggressive defenses forced a combined 26 turnovers (16 by Mason, 10 by VCU), with the Rams matching their season average for steals with 10.
"The only thing we talked about," Hewitt said, "was 'let's not drop our heads.' They average 10 steals a game. They're going to steal the ball. That's what they do. Now, some of their missed steals turned into easy baskets for us. But again, our whole thing was 'Nothing negative. Keep playing. Be there at the end.'"
The only Mason player who truly had the freedom of the floor was Pearson, who worked his way inside time and again to help bring the Patriots back from an eight-point second half deficit. Then, with time running out, Pearson stepped outside to hit a three that kept George Mason in range.
VCU's advantage in the turnover department was offset by their struggles on the boards. George Mason won that battle 41-33 and did so more or less without the services of Mike Morrison, who fouled out with a single point and four rebounds in 23 minutes. George Mason also had more second-chance points (15-6) and had good enough transition defense to limit VCU to just 13 points off the Patriots' 16 turnovers. Mason's halfcourt defense wasn't bad either, as VCU made just five of 18 two-point shots in the second 20 minutes. Even when the Rams went on an 11-4 run in the second half to take a 44-36 lead with 11:11 left, the Patriots went on an 11-0 run over the following 5:06 to take a 47-44 lead. Back and forth, turnover following turnover, acrobatic shot following acrobatic shot, hard foul following hard foul.
Fortunately for regional basketball fans, these two go at it again in Richmond on February 25. It should be another punch-counterpunch epic, exactly what is to be expected from two Final Four programs led by Final Four coaches.
Tuesday night, however, it was the most recent participant of the two who was left stunned, but accepting.
"The reality is, Sherrod Wright made a phenomenal shot," Shaka Smart said. "Actually, I would take that shot again."