Colonial Athletic Association
For 38 minutes it was like the magic had never left.
With a 57-52 lead and under two minutes to play, the George Mason Patriots appeared poised to make a miracle four-game run in March for the second straight year.
Then in one instant the pixie dust disappeared, Cinderella tripped down the stairs, David Blaine botched a card trick, and Eric Maynor took over.
Maynor picked Mason players on consecutive possessions on his way to scoring nine straight points and carrying VCU to a 65-59 victory and an automatic berth in the Big Dance.
The spurt started when Maynor stole the ball from Patriot guard Dre Smith and then scored and was fouled with 1:55 remaining. Seconds later he picked veteran guard Gabe Norwood and tied the game with a lay-up. After an empty Mason possession, Maynor made an off-balanced runner in the lane to give the Rams the lead for good with 46.5 seconds to play. Then after another Patriot miss, he gabbed the rebound, was intentionally fouled, and sank two free-throws to seal the deal.
"For about 36 minutes, we were in control of the game," George Mason coach Jim Larranaga said. "Then Eric Maynor stepped up and made huge defensive plays and converted those into layups. He proved tonight that he's a big-time player."
VCU earned its first trip to the NCAA Tournament since they won the CAA title in 2004, also with a narrow victory over the Patriots. The Rams would love to duplicate the success their Monday night opponents saw a season ago, but they don't want anyone to confuse them with last year's big story.
"What Mason did last year was special," said first-year Rams coach Anthony Grant, a Florida assistant a year ago who looks like he's 21. "I don't think anybody on our team right now is trying to duplicate or be what George Mason was. I think we're content being VCU and who we are, and we're going to make our own way."
Maynor scored 14 of his 20 points in the second half and added seven rebounds and four assists. He was selected the tournament MVP.
"All throughout the year, different guys stepped up on different nights," Maynor said. "Tonight was my night."
CAA tourney MVP Eric Maynor gave the signature performance of
Championship Week thus far
Derek Raivio put to bed any doubt that his senior year might be the first that Gonzaga missed the NCAA Tournamen since 1998 by scoring a season-high 28 points to lead the 'Zags to a 77-68 victory over Santa Clara in the West Coast Conference title game.
"This is my legacy," the senior guard said. "If we don't win this game, I don't think we're in the tournament. I was not going to let that happen on my watch."
Gonzaga has won eight of the last nine WCC tourneys, with their only slip-up coming in 2003 when San Diego snatched the automatic bid.
The Zags led by as many as 10 points in the second half, but it was David Pendergraft's 3-pointer with 4:36 left that made it 61-52 that was the dagger.
The Broncos threatened with a minute left in the game when Joey Kaempf's 3-pointer cut the lead to 73-68, but Gonzaga answered with a Micah Downs' dunk and a pair of Raivio free throws for the final margin.
After the game chants of "Rai-vi-o! Rai-vi-o!" could be heard from the stands of the University of Portland's Chiles Center.
"He did what every great senior that we've had at Gonzaga has done ... He played his best game he's ever played, in the biggest moment, when we needed him the most," Gonzaga coach Mark Few said. "That's what it's all about. That's what you want your seniors to do."
WCC co-MVP Derek Raivio celebrates with his teammates
The win marks the end of a tumultuous month for the Zags that saw them fall squarely on the NCAA Tournament bubble, lose forward Josh Hytvelt, and have their nation's best 50-game home winning streak snapped.
"Derek was talking about all the adversity we've been though, all the troubles and the attention we've received - especially not knowing if we were going to make it to the tournament if we didn't win this game," Gonzaga's David Pendergraft said. "I mean, we came through this like brothers, especially after what happened a month ago. This is awesome, an amazing feeling."
Metro Atlantic Athletic
Freshman guard Tyrone Lewis scored a career-high 24 points and had five steals as Niagara won the MAAC title and earned a bid to the NCAA tournament with an 83-79 victory over Siena on Monday night.
The Purple Eagles, who will make their second appearance in the Big Dance in three years, have won 11 straight.
"It was just like I envisioned," Lewis said after the game. "Dancing on the floor, it was everything I dreamed of."
Tyrone Lewis hugs his mom after Niagara's win in the MAAC championship game
Siena certainly made them earn it.
There were eight ties and 15 lead changes in the game, and the biggest lead for either team was just six points.
With the scored tied at 73 and just over three minutes to play, Charron Fisher made a three-point play to give the Purple Eagles a lead. Siena clawed back within one twice, but the Saints' Ronald Moore missed a runner in the lane with 25 seconds left and Clif Brown made two foul shots to give Niagara an 80-77 lead. Three more free throws in the final seconds extended the lead to the final margin.
"We felt this was a great opportunity for us and we came real close," Siena coach Fran McCaffrey said.
Lewis, who scored 59 points in three games, was named the tournament's Most Valuable Player.
Siena won both regular season meetings between the two squads, making Niagara the third team this season to win its conference championship game by beating a team that swept them in the regular season.
Western Kentucky's season is no more as the 'Toppers were bounced in the Sun Belt semis by two seed Arkansas State 80-73 on Monday.
The Indians went 26-of-28 from the free throw line to keep alive their hopes of returning to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 1999.
Third-seeded Western seemed to have the momentum when ASU's Ashton Farmer was called for a flagrant foul on Jeremy Evans, who hit both free throws, then scored underneath when the Hilltoppers retained possession after the foul shots. Courtney Lee followed with a 3-pointer in transition for a 7-0 run that put Western Kentucky up 49-40 five minutes into the second half.
But the Hilltoppers were done in by a bevy of fouls. They were over the limit with more than 14 minutes left in the game, putting Arkansas State on the free throw line often thereafter and the Indians chipped away until the lead was theirs.
The Hiltoppers finished their season at 22-11 while Arkansas State moves on to play surprising North Texas in tomorrow night's championship game.
The fifth seeded Mean Green knocked off No. 9 Middle Tennessee 59-52 in Monday night's other semifinal.
It's the first tournament final for North Texas in its seven years in the Sun Belt.
Tip-off is scheduled for 9 p.m.
Oral Roberts and Oakland ensured that the two top seeds will do battle in the Mid-Con final by taking out each of their semifinal opponents on Monday.
ORU blasted IUPUI 75-54, while Oakland had to come from behind to nip UMKC 83-79.
Tune in to ESPN at 7 tonight to watch Ken Tutt in the Mid-Con final for the 19th consecutive year. Just sayin', dude's been there a long time...or maybe it just seems that way since I only watch one Mid-Con game a season and Ken Tutt is a name that sticks in your head.