Failing to hold big leads seemed to be a problem the Virginia Commonwealth basketball team had licked.
Then it happened again last night.
VCU had a 15-point lead early in the second half against George Mason. But the Rams watched it evaporate quickly, couldn’t do quite enough in the waning moments to hold off the Patriots in regulation and let a huge opportunity slip away in a bitter 82-77 defeat in overtime.
This one will sting for a while. VCU (9-5, 17-6), which had won eight of its past nine games, had a chance to pull even with Mason (11-3, 16-9) into at least a tie for third in the Colonial Athletic Association race.
Instead, the Rams fell out of the top four spots, at least for the time being. The top four get byes in the conference tournament.
“Every game is important at this point,” VCU coach Shaka Smart said. “We feel bad, and we’re disappointed we let one slip away that we feel like in the closing minutes that we had. But we’re not getting that game back. We’re not getting any of the games back we’ve played. The question is, how do we respond? As coaches and players, what do we want to do next?”
VCU had double-digit leads at Western Michigan and William and Mary earlier in the season. The Rams lost both games.
“I feel like we’ve let six get away,” VCU point guard Joey Rodriguez said, “but especially this one.”
The Rams led 43-28 barely a minute into the second half. The Patriots cut into it with a quick 7-0 run. From there, VCU had trouble stopping Mason from scoring.
“The more they got going, we didn’t grit our teeth and get enough stops,” Rodriguez said.
Rodriguez (24 points, seven assists) was terrific for VCU, keeping the Rams afloat with big 3-pointer after big 3-pointer. The Rams kept a slight lead despite a technical foul on Larry Sanders for bumping Luke Hancock after being whistled for a foul.
But eventually the Rams were unable to stem the momentum and emotion generated by the Patriots and a student-heavy crowd of 5,486 that came out despite a poor weather forecast.
Behind Louis Birdsong (13 points), Mike Morrison (18 points) and Cam Long (19), Mason finally took a 63-62 lead with 3:58 left when Birdsong rolled in a short jumper near the basket.
VCU recovered to regain a 66-63 lead on Sanders’ lay-in and Ed Nixon’s drive. The Rams still led 68-67 with 12 seconds left. T.J. Gwynn made the first of two foul shots but missed the second.
Sanders (13 points) fouled Long — fouling out for the first time this season in the process — on Long’s drive to the basket with 4.3 seconds left. Long made both free throws.
Rodriguez got off a contested 3-pointer from the left of the key at the buzzer, but it hit the side of the rim.
In overtime, Rodriguez hit a 3-pointer and snuck in the lane for a short jumper to give VCU a 74-71 lead with 3:14 left. But Morrison’s three-point play and Hancock’s reverse layup put Mason ahead for good.
“It’s a tough pill to swallow,” Smart said.
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