- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 4, 2012

RICHMOND — There’s not much George Mason would like to have back from its basketball seasons.

Nine minutes Sunday might be the exception.

The third-seeded Patriots’ hopes of a return trip to the NCAA tournament were dashed with a 74-64 loss to second-seeded Virginia Commonwealth in the CAA semifinals at Richmond Coliseum, a score not remotely capable of reflecting the stunning disparity between the afternoon’s early stages and its conclusion.

VCU scored the game’s first 22 points, made its first eight 3-pointers and held a 32-4 edge before sputtering and permitting Mason to pull to six late in the second half.

“We weren’t ready at the start,” coach Paul Hewitt said. “That falls on me. When they started hitting those threes, we should have started making some adjustments earlier.”

Really, though, who would have been ready for the Rams’ blitz?

The one component Mason was unable to handle also was the most predictable. VCU’s pressure flummoxed the Patriots (24-9), and the Rams forced turnovers on five of Mason’s first six possessions.

By the time the Patriots took their second shot, VCU already led 9-0.

“Just being aggressive offensively and defensively taking them out of their sets,” VCU guard Bradford Burgess (20 points) said. “We got them into turnovers in the beginning and we just took advantage of it.”

Mason finished with 17 turnovers, including a dozen in the first half. The Rams held a 17-0 scoring edge off turnovers in the first half.

“We feel like if we don’t have live ball turnovers, we’re a great defensive team,” Hewitt said. “It’s tough to defend a live-ball turnover. It really hurts you giving up those easy baskets.”

Yet those adjustments did come, and a curious thing happened. The Patriots, who looked utterly out of sorts by the time Burgess hit his third 3-pointer to make it 12-0, slowly created a chance to salvage something from a potential debacle.

The deficit was 16 points at halftime. It hovered around 10 for a chunk of the second half. And when Mike Morrison (20 points, 11 rebounds) made two free throws with 3:17 remaining, the Patriots trailed 64-58.

It was, clearly, just a bit too much to ask of Mason, especially with conference player of the year Ryan Pearson struggling to a six-point day. The Patriots missed a tip-in and 3-pointers from Vertrail Vaughns and Jonathan Arledge to create an even tighter game before VCU finished things off at the foul line.

“We kept fighting,” Morrison said. “We knew we just had to chip away and chip away. The young guys, the older guys, we all fought and we all believed. At no point in the game did we feel we couldn’t come back. Give everybody credit on that. We stuck together all the way to the end.

The Rams (27-6) will face top-seeded Drexel (27-5) in Monday’s title game.

Mason, meanwhile, probably will receive the opportunity to play again, just not in the NCAA tournament. Hewitt said he had yet to discuss postseason possibilities with athletic director Tom O’Connor.

Regardless, it was an unusual way for the dream of consecutive NCAA bids to end. The Patriots’ humiliating early struggles essentially cost them almost any chance of reaching the conference title game. And yet, given a few more minutes, Mason might have caught VCU.

What’s that worth? Not enough to move, but certainly some self-respect that appeared endangered for nine long, dreadful minutes the Patriots would no doubt pay dearly to have back.

“We wanted to win and we didn’t, but I’m still very proud of my teammates,” Morrison said. “The whole team, we fought back and never quit. I don’t know. I’m disappointed with the loss, but when you fall that far behind, the best you can do is fight back that far. We fell just short.”