RICHMOND — George Mason's first CAA tournament game was close. Of course it was. It feels like the Patriots were there a dozen times already, staring down a nerve-wracking finish to a taut contest.
Ryan Pearson, the league's player of the year? He was on the bench with five fouls. Mike Morrison, his pal in the paint? He was done for the day, too.
The third-seeded Patriots would hold on, Bryon Allen driving to the basket with 3.4 seconds left to clinch a 61-59 victory over sixth-seeded Georgia State at Richmond Coliseum. Morrison might have found the victory thrilling in January, exciting in February.
In March? It's simply sobering, a reminder of how close the end really is.
"I couldn't even celebrate," Morrison said. "I was just sitting there. People were running around and I was like, 'Oh, I can breathe now.'"
He can for at least an hour or so, anyway. The Patriots (24-8) face second-seeded Virginia Commonwealth (26-6) on Sunday in the CAA semifinals, the third meeting in a 20-day span between two of the league's signature programs.
Morrison was in the mix all night, scoring a team-high 12 points, collecting seven rebounds and swatting four shots. He set the defense, played an ultra-intelligent game and tossed in his usual feistiness (whether a raucous celebration after an early tip-in or an extended floor-slapping turn after taking a charge in the second half) to offset Pearson's quiet four-point evening.
It continued the re-emergence of the Morrison who terrorized the CAA in January, reaching double figures the first six games of 2012 before entering a quiet stretch.
There would be no regular season honors for Morrison. Not an all-conference award, even on the third team. Not an all-defensive team nod, an obvious irritation to coach Paul Hewitt.
But coupled with the finish line in sight, the Morrison the Patriots so desperately need was ready from the start as Mason finally played its first game of the tournament.
"I think he got motivated by being left off the defensive team, he really was," Hewitt said. "Not that Mike doesn't get motivated already, but I know that watching his body language during the awards ceremony [Thursday], I just kept watching him. I was really disappointed. Believe me, I know how good that kid is. He's a terrific defender basketball player."
Perhaps not entirely in the eyes of Saturday's officiating crew, who tagged Morrison with a pair of fouls down the stretch and sent him to the bench for good with 1:19 remaining.
With that, control of what might have been the final meaningful game of his career slipped away. He departed with a 59-55 lead, but the Panthers (21-11) made the ensuing foul shots and James Fields' layup off a turnover tied it with 38 seconds to go.
"I'm usually pretty cool and calm," Morrison said. "As soon as I fouled out, mentally I was unstable for a minute. I lost it. I'm not going to lie, I lost it for a second. Not anger-wise, but, 'Oh my goodness, what's going to happen?' I had all the trust in my teammates. Then they tied it up and it was like, 'Man, at least we have the last shot.'"
Morrison didn't even hear the play call after Hewitt called timeout with 18 seconds to go. He was determined not to leave too much time on the clock, instructing Allen to begin the play with five seconds remaining on the shot clock.
From the outside, the design looked unorganized. Allen then went to right, found a lane, worked off a slick screen from Jonathan Arledge (who was in the game because Pearson fouled out) and completed the reverse layup with a soft touch off the glass.
Morrison didn't make the play, but it meant as much as any of his best moments of the night. Mason had won another close game (its seventh this season by four points or loss) and won the right to try for another.
"For me, this one was much different," Morrison said. "Just having me and Ryan both fouled out and knowing you have to depend on your team. From the sideline, my head was just going crazy. It was definitely a different situation for me where it's lose and go home. I'm just so glad my team is so deep and was able to pull it off for all of us."
It's true for Pearson, who was granted the opportunity to redeem a night that matched his lowest scoring output of his senior year. It's true of guard Andre Cornelius, who made his first 3-pointer since Feb. 18 with 2:45 to go.
And it especially resonates with Morrison, a man who knows a portion of his career will be defined solely by Mason's accomplishments in his final season. Or, more to the point, just how the Patriots fare over as many as three days in Richmond.
"This is one of the most important weekends of my life, definitely," Morrison said. "And Ryan. And Dre. I don't think there's anyone in this tournament that wants it badder than us."
Thanks to Allen, Mason's fate is back in Morrison's hands. That's reason enough for him to breathe easier.
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