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Anatomy of a buzzer-beater: Sherrod Wright lifts Mason over VCU

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The initial euphoria was gone as George Mason coach Paul Hewitt strode into his press conference as Tuesday teetered on Wednesday.

His reaction was still very much the same as it was a half-hour earlier.

“I still can’t believe it,” Hewitt confessed.

Nor could anyone, really. Not after Sherrod Wright swished a 25-foot forever moment at the buzzer to hand the Patriots a 62-61 victory over Virginia Commonwealth.

Perhaps it won’t mean much in the long run. The Patriots (22-6, 14-2 CAA) nudged the Rams (22-6, 13-3) out of a three-way tie for the conference lead. They’ll meet again Feb. 25. They might see each other in the CAA tournament. The script might not be repeated.

It almost certainly won’t, actually.  This would be tough to replicate.

The setup

It wasn’t entirely finished, but VCU was doing what it was supposed to. Up five in the final minute, the Rams kept making free throws.

But then Ryan Pearson hit a 3-pointer to trim Mason’s deficit to two.

And Vertrail Vaughns nailed an outside shot to leave VCU clinging to a 60-59 lead with 4.2 seconds left.

Not to worry. The steady Rams sent Briante Weber to the foul line, where he promptly missed the first.

Nearby, coach Shaka Smart pondered the scenario. He considered ordering a missed free throw. He thought about taking his final timeout, only to back off at the possibility of Mason enjoying more space.

Weber’s second shot slipped through seamlessly, and the Rams’ edge was back to two. But deep down, Smart wasn’t entirely thrilled with one portion of the scoreboard.

“I kept looking at the clock and thinking ‘That’s a little bit too much,’” Smart said. “I wished it was 2.8 or 1.8 because a good player can go the length of the floor and get a good shot off.”

The inbound

Wright would have his star moment soon, the sort of twist that can define a career.

Only there’s a funny bit of happenstance: He wasn’t supposed to get the ball.

Pearson acted as the inbound passer, and speedy point guard Bryon Allen was the first look.

There was just one problem.

“He was totally denied and I couldn’t get it to him,” Pearson said.

Wright, assigned to screen on the play, immediately assessed the situation. Pearson was tiptoeing the baseline, flirting with disaster in the process. He zipped from near midcourt to the top of the key, accepting the toss from Pearson.

“I pump-faked the pass and I was almost falling over the line and Sherrod saw me and he came back and he was the first person I saw so I just threw it to him,” Pearson said.

The dribbles

Each day in practice, Mason works on end-game situations. Maybe there’s three seconds left. Perhaps seven. Either way, the Patriots are ready for the pressure.

In case it wasn’t enough, Hewitt stood on the sideline before Pearson was handed the ball and bellowed “three dribbles.” That’s all whoever got the ball would have time for.

“I don’t know if he took three dribbles,” Hewitt said.

Don’t worry. He took three dribbles. He had someone glued to him the entire time, too.

The defense

Never in the sequence did Wright have it easy.

VCU sophomore Rob Brandenburg hewed nearby for a charge of roughly half the court – from one 3-point line to within about five feet of the other. If Wright was to manage anything, he would earn it.

Brandenburg remained to the right of the Mason guard the entire time, eventually leaning in and placing a hand in Wright’s face.

“It looked like Rob was in great position,” VCU’s Bradford Burgess said. “When he shot it, it was almost like Rob blocked it.”

It wouldn’t have been unprecedented. Brandenburg swatted Wright’s 3-point attempt in the first half, a fate Wright wasn’t about to suffer again.

“I just jumped my highest on that one,” Wright said.

The shot

Hewitt was on the wrong end of his share of buzzer-beaters during his time at Georgia Tech.

It didn’t take long to know this could turn out different.

“When Sherrod went up and shot it, I was just focused on his face,” Hewitt said. “He looked like ‘Hey, I’m here, this is an opportunity.’ He looked confident when he went up to shoot the ball. It wasn’t like he was just throwing it up and hoping. He shot that ball like he meant it.”

With the try clear of Brandenburg, the only question was whether Wright fully adjusted for shooting on the run. Once a starter, Wright fell into a funk early in conference play and settled in as the Patriots’ sixth man.

He’d reached double digits in six of his last 10 games and was hardly in a funk. But in case anyone wondered what had happened to him, he replied with a swish after the buzzer.

“As he raises up to shot, I’m just watching his shot standing there and was like ‘Wow, if this shot goes in, this place is going to go crazy,’” Pearson said. “Shot falls and first thing I do is run to Sherrod I was so happy. I let out all my emotions. I was just so happy. Best Valentine’s Day ever. By far.”

Smart, watching from the far sideline, could only clasp his hands on his head and slowly walk toward midcourt. Disbelief didn’t begin to cover the expression of a coach who delivered his share of surprises less than a year ago in the NCAA tournament.

The defense was nearly perfect. Maybe the Rams could have pressured the ball earlier, though it would have carried the risk of a foul. No, VCU had done precisely what it should have. Most of the time, it would be departing with a two-point win.

“I would take that shot again,” Smart said. “I don’t know exactly how far out it was – probably 30 feet or so – and Rob Brandenburg did a pretty good job contesting it. But Sherrod Wright did a better job making it.”

Quickly, official Roger Ayers approached the video monitor at the scorer’s table. Bryan Kersey donned a headset as Jeff Clark stood nearby. The three examined the evidence in front of them.

To Wright, there was never a question about the conclusion.

“I know I let it off way early before the buzzer went off,” Wright said. “I knew that for sure.”

The basket counted. The celebration, suspended as the review unfolded, commenced again. And Wright was left to bask in a moment certain to rank among his finest in Fairfax.

“I made the shot of my dreams,” Wright said with a wide smile. “Everybody dreams of making a big-time shot to get a big win against your rivals. My dream came true today.”

Hard as it is to believe, it did.

Patrick Stevens

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