CLEVELAND —- George Mason’s next generation of players scripted the start of their own NCAA tournament story Friday.
They borrowed one of the hallmarks of their famous predecessors to do it.
The eighth-seeded Patriots erased a six-point deficit in the final two minutes, ousting ninth-seeded Villanova 61-57 in an East regional round of 64 game for their first NCAA tournament victory since 2006.
Luke Hancock scored 18 points, including the go-ahead 3-pointer with 19.8 seconds remaining, as Mason (27-6) secured a date Sunday with top-seeded Ohio State (33-2) at Quicken Loans Arena.
“We kind of ended up as the last team standing,” coach Jim Larranaga said.
The Patriots’ sixth NCAA appearance —- and only second to include a victory —- already has a signature highlight for a team with T-shirts declaring they would be this year’s George Mason.
Hancock, who came within a point of his career-high, authored it when he rolled off a screen, stepped back to shake Villanova’s Corey Stokes and then drilled an outside shot to give Mason a 59-57 lead.
“Definitely not money,” Hancock said of his thoughts after hoisting the shot. “I was just kind of hoping and praying.”
Stokes missed a jumper on the ensuing possession for Villanova (21-12), and Mike Morrison finished matters off emphatically with a dunk in the final second to give Mason its first multi-possession lead of the night and set off a celebration on the bench.
“If you had a camera looking at me, I was probably at halfcourt already,” forward Johnny Williams said.
For as much as Hancock’s shot will be remembered, he arguably made a greater contribution at the other end of the floor throughout the second half along with senior guard Isaiah Tate.
Mason, which allowed Villanova guards Corey Fisher, Maalik Wayns and Stokes to combine for 29 points in the first half, tightened up after the break. While the Patriots’ offense was moderately better in the second half, their defense stifled the Wildcats’ perimeter stars after the break.
Hancock marked Stokes for much of the night, and the Villanova senior helped his team built a 10-point lead. But Stokes hit only one shot in the second half.
“He lit us up in the first half and I felt like it was kind of on my shoulders,” Hancock said. “He hit a lot of big shots and I just wasn’t playing good enough defense and I wasn’t trusting my teammates enough to be able to guard their man and I was helping too much. In the second half, they just said they were going to guard theirs and they believed in me to stay on him and keeping guarding him and luckily he didn’t fry me like he did in the second half.”
Tate’s work was arguably slicker. The Wildcats’ offense flowed through Fisher, and Tate’s disruption of the veteran led Villanova to sputter offensively. Fisher, Stokes and Wayns combined to shoot 3-for-19 in the second half while managing just 12 points.
Meanwhile, Mason did what it couldn’t in the CAA semifinals against Virginia Commonwealth, hanging around long enough to eventually surpass a team that initially sizzled.
“At one point, I thought ‘We’ve been here before —- we’ve been down against teams,’” Tate said. “And at the same time, I thought they really were on. Stokes might have been 3-for-3 and Fisher was getting his shots from his spots. In the second half, we were able to get a body more and contest all their shots and they started to miss.”
It took one last defensive stop in the closing seconds to clinch the victory. Ryan Pearson grabbed a rebound, only to have Villanova create a jump-ball situation. Seconds later, he secured another rebound and sent it forward to Morrison to extinguish any remaining doubt.
There was little doubt Mason won with its tested defense. But more simply, it won, a feat the Patriots so desperately craved to etch out their bit of program history.
“We always hear about that Final Four team, and now we’re just trying to create our own legacy and create our own identity,” Pearson said.
Doing so with defense, of course, is a standing Mason tradition.
—- Patrick Stevens