- The Washington Times - Friday, March 16, 2007

BUFFALO, N.Y. — Eric Maynor lifted Virginia Commonwealth into the postseason with his strong play late in the Colonial Athletic Association title game.

He one-upped himself last night, carrying the Rams into the second round of the NCAA tournament with a game-winning shot against national power Duke.

The 11th-seeded Rams pulled the biggest surprise — and a relatively mild one at that — of the first day of the tournament, knocking off the No. 6 Blue Devils 79-77 at HSBC Arena to advance to a West Region meeting with the winner of last night’s late game between No. 3 Pittsburgh and No. 14 Wright State.

Maynor scored 22 points for the Rams (28-6), who won an NCAA tournament game for the first time since 1985.

“These guys believed all year long if we came out and played to our identity that we could win a conference championship, we could win the tournament and we could go deep into the NCAA tournament,” VCU coach Anthony Grant said. “I’m just proud of these guys tonight.”

It was an unusually premature end of a season for Duke (22-11), which struggled with its youngest roster since the 1940s and a lack of offensive consistency it could never solve. The Blue Devils lost in the first round of the NCAA tournament for the first time since 1996 and snapped a streak of nine straight Sweet 16 appearances, the longest in the nation.

“The fact we’ve gone every year since 1996 is a story in itself,” coach Mike Krzyzewski said. “If you’re in this tournament long enough, you’re going to go down in the first, second, third [games]. Fact is, these guys played well enough to put ourselves in a position to go down. They shouldn’t be thinking about 1996. They were in grade school in 1996. They just need to learn from this experience. … It’s not our birthright to get in. You have to earn it each year.”

Greg Paulus (25 points) and Josh McRoberts (22) both had career highs for Duke, which lost its final four games.

Maynor, though, provided most of the highlights as an 11th-seeded team from the CAA upended a national power in the first round for the second straight year. The sophomore from Fayetteville, N.C., made two baskets after the 1:24 mark to give the Rams an edge, and VCU maintained a two-point lead after Jesse Pellot-Rosa split a pair of free throws with 16 seconds left.

Duke’s DeMarcus Nelson then drove from end to end for a virtually uncontested layup with 10.3 seconds left to tie it. But Maynor was in complete control. He coolly brought it across midcourt, set up Duke’s Jon Scheyer, then drilled a pull-up 16-footer to push the Rams ahead.

“When I saw [Nelson’s shot] go through the net, I looked over to Coach Grant and tried to signal him not to call a timeout,” Maynor said. “I knew when it got in my hands that I was going to try to break my man down and make a play. It just happened the way it happened, but I’m excited about it.”

Scheyer missed a halfcourt heave at the buzzer as the Rams became the first double-digit seed to advance to the second round.

In many ways, it was not stunning that the Rams followed George Mason’s lead from a year ago in pulling an upset. The veteran club has played well throughout the season, and Pellot-Rosa said VCU remembers being picked sixth in the CAA in the preseason.

Nevertheless, the Rams struggled at the start last night and trailed 22-9 nearly 10 minutes in. VCU trimmed the deficit to 40-38 by halftime. The Blue Devils stretched their lead back to 11 points by the middle of the second half, but the Rams’ torrid 3-point shooting (9-for-16) helped them pull off an 18-6 run to take the lead with 5:59 left.

It was the same type of spunkiness George Mason displayed last year during its Final Four run. But Grant dismissed any comparisons to the last giant-killer to come out of the Rams’ league.

“We’re trying to be VCU,” Grant said. “What Mason did last year was great, it was special and it was something you may never see again. I don’t know. We feel like we’ve got special young men and this is a special team. They love each other and they don’t want this to end. … Any references to being George Mason or being Cinderella, we’re very happy being VCU.”

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