RICHMOND | When play stopped for a television timeout with a little more than seven minutes left in the first half, George Mason coach Jim Larranga was feeling good.
His Patriots were leading Virginia Commonwealth by seven. Sophomore guard Cam Long was filling in admirably for injured senior John Vaughan. The Siegel Center crowd was relatively placid. Most importantly, the Patriots had held VCU star Eric Maynor, the Colonial Athletic Association's leading scorer, without a basket.
But the Patriots could contain Maynor for only so long. When the 6-foot-3 senior guard broke free following the timeout, things fell apart for George Mason. Maynor scored 28 points - including eight in the last four minutes - to lead VCU to a 76-71 victory against George Mason, pushing the Patriots out of a three-way tie for first in the CAA.
"As often happens when VCU is playing, Eric Maynor took over," Larranga said. "He's one heck of a basketball player."
The Patriots pushed the tempo throughout the first half, spurred on by the smooth-shooting Long, who finished with 24 points on 7-for-10 shooting. Then VCU coach Anthony Grant employed a forceful fullcourt press, Maynor found his touch and the momentum slipped from the Patriots' grasp. By halftime, Maynor had 12 points, the Patriots had turned the ball over eight times and the Rams had a seven-point lead.
Spurred on by Maynor, VCU (15-5, 8-1) came out of the locker room hot and stretched the margin to 15. Without Vaughan, who suffered a concussion in the Patriots' 58-57 loss to Northeastern on Wednesday, Long and the Patriots appeared flummoxed by the Rams' press. Larranga counts on Vaughan to inbound the ball, and without him, the Patriots (14-5, 7-2) committed 14 turnovers.
"I think we got a little frustrated," Long said. "I think we just made mistakes on our own."
Long and Dre Smith, who finished with 16 points, chipped away at the Rams' lead, pulling the Patriots within one late in the contest. Knowing that Maynor has made a career of thriving with the game on the line, Larranga called timeout to gather his team and tell them to clamp down. But with 3:34 left, Maynor stepped onto the floor, coolly made a 3-pointer and restored the Rams' resolve.
Long, who was charged with guarding Maynor for most of the contest, said it was as though the Rams' star "was all over the place."
There was Maynor dishing an alley-oop to Larry Sanders to become VCU's all-time leader in assists. There was Maynor picking the Patriots' pocket on the press for three steals. There was Maynor slinking his way through the paint for a three-point play that iced the game with 1:13 remaining.
"I have said this over and over again," Larranga said. "He has the ability to elevate his game at any moment."