- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 6, 2007

RICHMOND — Virginia Commonwealth point guard Eric Maynor made sure there would be no final Mason miracle.

The Rams point guard single-handedly erased George Mason’s lead in the final minutes as VCU won the Colonial Athletic Association championship game 65-59 in front of a Rams-partisan sellout crowd of 11,200 at Richmond Coliseum last night. George Mason led by five going into the final two minutes before the Rams sophomore took over at both ends of the court, scoring nine straight during an 11-0 run to end the Patriots’ bid for a second straight NCAA tournament berth.

“He is a special player,” George Mason coach Jim Larranaga said of Maynor, who had 20 points, seven rebounds, four assists and three steals and was named the tournament’s MVP. “Eric Maynor deserves a lot of credit for taking a game where you have been behind basically from the beginning and turning it into a victory.”

The loss ended another surprising March for George Mason, which shocked college basketball last season during its remarkable NCAA tournament run to the Final Four. The Patriots had a similarly stunning four-day stretch this week, although on a smaller stage, overcoming a disappointing regular season to become the first CAA team to win three conference tournament games and reach the championship match.

While the Patriots (18-15) rediscovered their rhythm and found an offensive star in Dre Smith during the week in Richmond, they will not be in the NCAA tournament this season and are clinging to an unlikely chance of making the NIT.

“It hurts,” said George Mason swingman Gabe Norwood, whose team beat 11th-seeded James Madison, third-seeded Hofstra and second-seeded Old Dominion on its improbable run. “This was our time to shine, and we tried to make the most of it.”

Maynor made sure they didn’t, taking advantage of an injury to George Mason’s only true point guard, Jordan Carter, who left with a bruised knee.

George Mason had possession and led 57-52 when Maynor stripped the ball from Smith at midcourt and converted a three-point play off a fast-break layup. After the inbounds pass, Maynor stole the ball from Gabe Norwood in the backcourt and converted another layup to tie the game at 57-57 with 1:42 remaining.

“I knew [Carter] was out,” Maynor said. “My teammates kept telling me to press up on the other guys. That’s what I did.”

George Mason’s Folarin Campbell missed a 3-pointer late in the shot clock with 1:09 left, and Maynor gave VCU the lead for good after scoring off a drive and push shot in the lane with 40 seconds left.

Campbell, who was named to the all-tournament team with Smith (12 points), had his shot blocked by Wil Fameni (13 points on 6-for-7 shooting) on the next possession, and Patriots forward Darryl Monroe was called for an intentional foul going for the rebound. Maynor converted a pair of free throws, and teammate B.A. Walker was fouled after the inbounds pass. He, too, made both foul shots, giving VCU a 63-57 lead with 17 seconds left.

“We knew their pressure would bother us, and Eric Maynor stepped up and made some huge defensive plays,” said Larranaga, whose team struggled against fullcourt pressure all night. “Big-time players make big-time plays, and he’s a big-time player.”

VCU (27-6) set a program record for wins by winning both the CAA regular season and tournament titles under first-year coach Anthony Grant.

Before Maynor won the game, the Rams had battled back each time the Patriots threatened to pull away. VCU used an 11-3 run to erase a seven-point deficit and took a 41-40 lead on Jamal Shuler’s floater with 10:16 left. Norwood (10 points) answered with a 3-pointer, and George Mason built the lead back to four.

The Rams scored four straight to take a 49-47 lead on Jesse Pellot-Rosa’s layup with 5:22 remaining. Norwood, a senior who made two 3-pointers in a game for the only time in his career, answered with another 3-pointer to get the lead back for the Patriots.

VCU’s Calvin Roland (12 points on 5-for-6 shooting) tied the game at 52-52 with 3:19 remaining before George Mason scored five straight on a three-point play from Will Thomas (10 points) and Campbell’s two free throws with 2:22 left.

That was the closest the Patriots got in their latest miracle run.

“I couldn’t be more proud of the way our team has handled adversity,” Larranaga said. “We showed we were capable of winning this game. Maynor deserves a lot of credit.”

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