“It’s a tough pill to swallow,” VCU coach Shaka Smart said.
That has been the theme of VCU’s tough luck on the road this season and certainly was the feeling after the Rams lost to George Mason Wednesday night, after blowing a 15-point second-half lead.
Wednesday night was the third time VCU has blown a big lead in the second half and lost on the road, the first two coming at Western Michigan and William & Mary.
No matter the theme or the history, the Rams lost this one to the Patriots, 82-77.
“We played hard enough and with enough energy to win, just made one too many mistakes,” Smart said.
The Rams played arguably their best half of the season as they leaped out to the lead and made the game look like a one-sided affair. After taking the lead at the 10:48 on a pair of Ed Nixon (St. Petersburg, Fla/Lakewood) free throws, VCU outscored the Patriots 29-14 in the final 10 minutes and gained a 13-point lead at halftime.
All but one of the Rams that saw action in the first half scored and VCU shot a red-hot 53 percent from the floor.
The black-and-gold defense also forced Mason into nine turnovers, scoring 13 points off of Mason blunders.
After the brilliant first half, a confident Rams team looked to plunge the knife in for the last time as the second half began, but the Patriots, a team that had won 17 CAA home games in a row, had other ideas.
“One thing I wanted our guys to understand was that the game was not over,” said Mason guard Cam Long.
Long and company came out of the locker room in the second half with a newly found fire. They jumped all over VCU, breaking out with a 13-5 run in the first four minutes to cut the lead to five.
However, despite the Patriots’ energy, VCU fought back with a vengeance as the smallest man on the floor, Joey Rodriguez (Olviedo, Fla./Lake Howell) put the team on his back.
The little junior knocked down three-pointer after three-pointer to keep VCU ahead of the curve and continually killed any Mason momentum.
With just under six minutes to go VCU held a 61-54 lead and appeared to have put the upstart Mason team to bed—until the big blow happened.
Nixon and George Mason’s Luke Hancock battled for a rebound underneath the basket until Hancock appeared to throw Nixon down. When Larry Sanders (Fort Pierce Fla./Port St. Lucie) came to defend his teammate he appeared to give Hancock a shove. After deliberating the referees not only gave Sanders the foul, but also gave the big man a technical foul. In one second Sanders had committed fouls three and four and gave Mason a chance to slip right back in the door with added possessions.
At the 3:59 mark the Patriots took their first lead since the 11:01 mark of the first half on a basket by Louis Birdsong. VCU was not out yet, however, and turned in two gutsy defensive possessions, scoring four straight points to take a three-point lead, 66-63. All VCU would need to win was foul shots.
Rodriguez did his part, knocking down two at the line to get the lead back to three with 22.3 seconds remaining.
Mason cut the lead back to one with 12 seconds left and sent Rams red shirt-senior T.J. Gwynn (Burlington, N.C./Cummings) to the line to all but seal the deal.
After making the first, Gwynn clanked the second of the rim and gave the Patriots the opportunity they needed. Long raced down the floor and was fouled by Sanders as he shot the ball.
The foul took Sanders out of the game and Long to the line to tie it. The junior did and when Rodriguez barely missed a three at the horn, the count read 69-69 and the teams were set to play overtime. In the extra period, the Rams again jumped to a lead, but again couldn’t hold it as Mason just had too much momentum.
The Patriots took the lead with 2:46 left and never gave it back as they won 82-77.
The loss dropped VCU to 17-6 overall and 9-5 in the conference.
Rodriguez scored a game-high 24 points, again setting his season high. Sanders, who only scored two points in the second half, finished with 13. Nixon and Gwynn each scored 10. Long led Mason with 19 points, including a 9-10 performance from the foul line. Mike Morrison scored 18, Louis Birdsong and Ryan Pearson each had 13 and 12 respectively. After shooting 53 percent in the first half, the Rams only shot 36 percent in the second and were only 2-8 in overtime.
“I feel like we’ve let six get away, but especially this one,” Rodriguez said.
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