- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 10, 2009

RICHMOND | Virginia Commonwealth’s Larry Sanders hung on the basket after a rim-rattling jam, grinning self-assuredly as he floated well above George Mason’s helpless players early in the second half.

As if the previous 27 minutes had yet to make the point, it was clear the Rams - and an NCAA tournament berth - were far out of reach for the Patriots in Monday’s Colonial Athletic Association tournament title game.

Top-seeded VCU hammered second-seeded George Mason 71-50 before 11,200 at packed Richmond Coliseum. Eric Maynor scored 25 points, and Sanders (18 points, 20 rebounds, seven blocks) was a suffocating defensive presence.

“He basically created a psychological barrier for us,” George Mason coach Jim Larranaga said. “We went inside several times early. Darryl Monroe and Louis Birdsong had opportunities he either altered or caused them to fade away or what have you. I don’t think we had an inside bucket until we started driving to the basket.”

Dre Smith scored 23 points for the Patriots (22-10), who lost to the Rams (24-9) in the league final for the third time in six years.

Typically, the conference powers engage in taut thrillers, with whatever separation between the teams coming in the closing stages. Instead, VCU delivered the biggest title game shellacking in the CAA’s 27-year history.

“They just came out and wanted it more than us and beat us from the opening tip,” senior guard John Vaughan said.

It would be tempting to consider this yet another instance of the Patriots getting Maynored - that is, done in by VCU’s superlative senior guard as so many others have in the past. There’s little question Maynor was crucial to opening up the Rams’ lead, connecting on consecutive NBA-range 3-pointers in the middle of the first half to help VCU build a 30-17 edge at the break.

It was Sanders, though, who dominated the proceedings. The 6-foot-10 sophomore set the tournament single-game record for rebounds and tied the event’s blocks mark and did so in a way that completely disrupted George Mason’s offense.

Monroe was ineffective, not scoring until long after matters were decided. Birdsong didn’t hit a shot from the floor. Combined, they had six points and two rebounds on 1-for-9 shooting.

“They played great,” Monroe said. “[Sanders] played tremendous. What, 20 rebounds? He was just active all night.”

The bigs’ minuscule output didn’t help the rest of the roster. Vaughan never benefited from any inside-outside movement and never looked comfortable. Point guard Cam Long (four points) could not find any space to drive to and had his worst scoring output since the season’s second game.

Long, Monroe and Vaughan averaged a combined 33.8 points entering the title game; they totaled 12 on Monday night.

“I feel that our big men have talent, but they didn’t adjust to the way the refs called the game,” Smith said. “Coach L told us it was like an NBA-type game. It was going to be physical, and if you don’t draw the contact and don’t go at his body and you shy away from him, you’re not going to get a foul because he’s a long, athletic guy. If you’re falling away, they’re not going to be kind to you, so you have to really attack, and I feel we just didn’t do that tonight.”

The Rams extinguished what little doubt remained about the outcome, uncorking a 13-1 run to begin the second half. Smith unleashed a barrage to help George Mason close within 56-44, but the Rams soon opened it up again.

The Patriots, with their second-place league finish, deep conference tournament run and top-50 RPI entering Monday night, should prove an appealing option for the NIT when it announces its 32-team field Sunday night. George Mason wanted more, but Sanders wouldn’t let it happen.

“My mindset is to be selfish and get every rebound because it would help my team,” Sanders said. “I was just trying to get my hands on every single one of them.”

And he ensured a second straight NCAA berth remained far out of George Mason’s reach.

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