- The Washington Times - Monday, March 9, 2009

RICHMOND | George Mason was struggling to uncover a path to its third straight Colonial Athletic Association tournament title game. Towson did everything it could to block every avenue.

Cam Long, though, possessed the ultimate answer.

The guard made three vital 3-pointers - including the clincher in the final minute - as the second-seeded Patriots outlasted the Tigers 56-48 to win their semifinal matchup at Richmond Coliseum.

George Mason (22-9) will meet top-seeded Virginia Commonwealth in Monday night’s title game, thanks largely to the marksmanship of its sophomore point guard. His final attempt - from more than 25 feet on the left wing with 25.7 seconds left as the shot clock expired - preserved the Patriots’ chances of returning to the NCAA tournament for the second straight season.

“I just watched the ball go in, and it was such a relief,” Long said. “I have to give it to my team. Even though it’s a big game and we have a lot of senior leadership, even the seniors were coming to me and saying, ‘Cam, we need you to step up.’ ”



So he did, scoring 14 points against the scrappy Tigers (12-22), who were the first No. 11 seed in conference history to reach the semifinals. They nearly went a step further, building a six-point lead midway through the second half despite some sloppiness.

It set up yet another step in Long’s maturation. He took over this season for departed program anchor Folarin Campbell and led a balanced team in scoring as it rolled to another 20-win season. But this was something other than a standard regular-season game - different environment, different stakes, different scrutiny.

Long simply made a pair of 3-pointers to make the deficit vanish, a pair of demoralizing baskets to a Towson bunch that swatted away 10 shots.

It wasn’t a one-man act for George Mason. Darryl Monroe scored 15 points and took a pounding inside a night after fouling out in the quarterfinals against James Madison. Senior guard Dre Smith had 13 points and a bloody nose to show for his trouble.

Quietly, Louis Birdsong produced a significant game. He took a charge from Towson’s Calvin Lee with 2:04 remaining and then laid it in moments later to secure a 51-48 lead.

“I thought there was a step-in,” Towson coach Pat Kennedy said. “I thought it was a good bucket, we go to the foul line and it’s a tie game. Instead it was taken off, and they go down and hit a 3. So it’s a six-point swing when the game is on the line, and I thought we had executed pretty well.”

George Mason’s three-point play was still to come. Towson defended as well as could be expected, preventing Long from funneling it to the post and keeping him well behind the 3-point line. But still he hoisted it, uncorking perhaps the most significant shot of his career to ensure the Patriots would play at least one more game.

“Sometimes in basketball, some nights somebody has to step up and make an unexpected play,” coach Jim Larranaga said. “It can’t all be scripted. If it was scripted and we were the ones writing the script, we would have tried to win the game by 20 in the script, not down to the wire.”

The script surely would not have included the Tigers, who acquitted themselves well despite a lackluster regular season. But it probably would have featured the past two CAA champions meeting for an automatic NCAA berth Monday, especially after Eric Maynor scored 23 points to lead VCU to a 61-53 defeat of Old Dominion in the opener.

Maynor owns his share of postseason history, eviscerating George Mason in the 2007 CAA final and following up less than two weeks later with a game-winning shot against Duke in the first round of the NCAA tournament.

The Patriots can counter with a man who is unfurling his own March magic this season.

“We need Cam every night,” Monroe said. “We need everybody every night.”

VCU 61, OLD DOMINION 53: Eric Maynor scored 23 points to lead the Rams (23-9) to the CAA title game for the fourth time in six years.

Maynor had 13 points in the second half, helping the Rams erase a 10-point deficit. Star forward Gerald Lee struggled to five points on 1-for-7 shooting for the Monarchs (21-10).

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