CLEVELAND — George Mason’s Mike Morrison held his favorite T-shirt with a you-gotta-believe slogan that his team might have another remarkable run in them to match 2006.
“We ARE this year’s George Mason.”
If the Patriots are going to duplicate that team’s march to the Final Four — wow! — did they ever start with a shot to remember.
Luke Hancock hit a 3-pointer with 21 seconds left, capping the Patriots’ comeback and keeping the one-time NCAA tournament darlings playing with a 61-57 win over Villanova on Friday.
Step aside, for now, that 2006 team. George Mason has another fantastic story to tell.
“We’re trying to do our own thing,” Hancock said. “Make our own name.”
They waited until the final ticks to take a lead on Hancock’s clutch shot. The Patriots (27-6) will play Ohio State or Texas-San Antonio on Sunday in the East region.
Hancock, his left shoulder taped and bandaged, showed no concern about any injury. He took a couple hard dribbles to his right, as if he was going to drive the lane for the go-ahead basket, then stopped right in his tracks. He crossed over and stepped back, then calmly knocked down the 3-pointer from a foot beyond the arc on the right wing.
“I was kind of hoping and praying,” Hancock said.
Corey Stokes’ final shot for Villanova hit the top of the backboard and Morrison slammed home one final basket for the Patriots, who will likely have to knock off the top-seeded Buckeyes to kick their run into second gear.
“This is our team here, two different years and two different teams,” Morrison said. “We are trying to do what we have to do for ourselves.”
This was the latest and last collapse for the Wildcats (21-12), who end the season on a six-game losing streak. They were once ranked as high as No. 5 but failed to get out of the first weekend of the NCAA tournament for the second straight year.
Hancock scored 18 points, and Morrison had 10 points and 11 rebounds for George Mason, which won its opening tournament game for the first time since its Final Four run in 2006.
The eighth-seeded Patriots trailed by 10 in the first half only to inch their way back.
Isaiah Tate popped George Mason’s first 3 of the second half with 1:57 left to make it 54-51, and the Wildcats crumbled from the free-throw line. Antonio Pena missed two and Mouphtaou Yarou clanked the front end of a one-and-one.
Morrison took advantage, dunking in a miss with 55 seconds left for George Mason’s first lead since early in the game. After Corey Fisher drew a foul on a 3-point attempt and made all of them for a 57-56 lead, Hancock followed with the biggest shot of his career.
The crowd filled to the rafters with Ohio State fans — most of them surely recalling George Mason’s sizzling run of a few years ago — roared in approval.
“He made a big-time shot,” Villanova coach Jay Wright said. “It doesn’t surprise me.”
Fisher finished with 20 points and Stokes had 14 for Villanova, but each went cold in the final 20 minutes after a great first half that rekindled memories of a 16-1 start to the season. The Wildcats, who went the final 3:28 without a field goal, won their final game on Feb. 19.
There were tears and hugs in the Villanova locker room as players accepted defeat.
“We never expected to go out like this,” Stokes said, using a towel to dry his eyes. “I’m proud of my teammates. We played our hearts out. We missed shots. They played great defense down the stretch.”
George Mason won its first NCAA tournament game since it knocked off Connecticut in the 2006 regional final, a run that coach Jim Larranaga said he never tires of talking about.
He’s got a new story now.
“They don’t want this tournament to be just one-and-done. They want to make memories of their own,” Larranaga said. “They want to do things that the ’06 team did, but they weren’t on the ’06 team. They’re focused on being the best that they can be this year.”
George Mason can still become this year’s George Mason — although as a single-digit seed for the first time in program history, a run through March as the tournament’s favorite mid-major will be a tougher sell.
That’s fine with the Patriots, who just want to keep rolling.
Villanova began the game like the team that was ranked No. 5 in the country, not the one that took a nose-dive in the second half of the season. Fisher and Stokes worked their way open and swished 3s as easy as free throws.
Fisher scored 11 straight points and Stokes followed that run with three straight 3s. The two Coreys scored 22 of Villanova’s first 23 points and helped them to a 10-point lead.
Yarou scored the first non-Corey field goal with 6:55 left in the first half.
Stokes missed a late 3, but Fisher bounced on a loose ball rebound and tossed up a floater to keep it a nine-point lead for Villanova. But unlike Michigan’s rout over Tennessee, this was no 8-9 mismatch. On the brink of falling into trouble, the Patriots cranked up the defensive pressure and hit free throws that help get them to 35-29 at halftime.
Then came another 20 minutes for the memories.
“Big picture, I feel really good about our program,” Wright said afterward. “This is going to make us stronger.”