The Maryland Terrapins were in danger of making NCAA tournament history of the embarrassing kind. The Terps, devoid of any inside game from the outset and a step slower than George Mason for much of the day, were about to waste a No. 3 seed by getting bounced in the first round.
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So Blake went to work, first by hitting a go-ahead three-point shot from the top of the key with 59 seconds left, then by forcing a critical turnover after the ensuing in-bounds play. And after the Terps made four free throws in the final 43 seconds to put down the inspired Patriots, 83-80, before 10,824 at the BSU Pavilion, you could feel the relief circulating in the Maryland locker room.
Maryland moved on to a much-anticipated second-round match tomorrow against 11th-seeded Georgia State, which is guided by former Terps coach Lefty Driesell. With a victory, the Terps (22-10) would advance to the Sweet 16 for the fifth time during the 12-year tenure of coach Gary Williams.
But, oh, what a tightrope the Terps were forced to walk. On a day when its frontcourt went AWOL in the face of Patriots center George Evans, the 30-year-old Army and Gulf War veteran who dominated the post with a game-high 27 points, seven rebounds and four assists, Maryland advanced under much duress.
"I'm not sure we could have won this game a month ago. But I thought we were going to win this game in the end, no matter what," said Williams, who watched the Terps allow George Mason to shoot 55.1 percent and nearly hand Maryland a first-round loss for the first time since 1997.
"We didn't play well, but don't ever question our character or whether our guys play hard. We dug down deep in the second half and struggled. We knew it wasn't going to be smooth. We found a way to win, which this team has developed this year."
Maryland countered its ineptitude down low - center Lonny Baxter produced a season-low two points and senior forward Terence Morris matched his season low with four - by getting most of its offense from the smaller guys, and gutting out the victory at the foul line.
Small forward Byron Mouton and guard Juan Dixon led Maryland with 22 points apiece, including a combined 16-for-16 free-throw display. Blake contributed another huge game, shooting 6-for-8 from the field for 13 points, to go with six assists and only three of Maryland's 15 turnovers.
And the Terps' bench, a stalwart all year, outscored George Mason's by a 20-6 count, with Drew Nicholas (eight points) and Chris Wilcox (six) leading the way.
But give George Mason (18-12) credit for showing no fear against its Capital Beltway neighbors. The Patriots, who nearly upset Maryland 15 months ago at Cole Field House before losing by three points, controlled most of yesterday's rematch, starting with the mismatch between Evans and Baxter, who had more fouls (four) than points in 20 rough minutes.
George Mason was heroic, from guard Erik Herring (19 points), who scored seven points over the final four minutes to push the Patriots to the brink of a shocking upset, to point guard Tremaine Price (eight points, six assists), who battled cramps in both calves by limping on and off the court throughout a torturous second half. Center Jesse Young also shined with 12 points and nine rebounds.
"As painful as it is now, it will be much more painful tomorrow," George Mason coach Jim Larranaga said. "You're always proud of your team when you know they've given their best effort and executed their game plan. We were in control of the game, for the most part."
Give the Terps credit for drawing on the strength they have absorbed during a trying season, in which they started 1-3, then went through a horrendous, 1-5 spell that put them on the NCAA bubble last month. Give them credit for winning their seventh game in eight attempts by being a resourceful group. The Terps made 24 of 27 foul shots and had the last word in a second half that featured 13 lead changes, including four in the final two minutes.
Maryland, which trailed throughout the first half and never led by more than five points, had to overcome combined 1-for-7 shooting by Morris and Baxter. Morris did not take a shot in the first half and sat for an eight-minute stretch in the second.
"We kind of underestimated [George Mason] a little bit. I'm upset with the way I played. I never got into any offensive flow," said Morris, who, in the final six minutes, missed back-to-back layups, bricked a three-point attempt, then missed two free throws with 28.4 seconds left and the Terps clinging to a 81-80 lead.
By that point, the game was in the hands of Dixon, Mouton and Blake, who showed a cold-blooded streak that has surfaced before in crunch time this season. After Herring had hit an 18-footer to give the Patriots a 75-74 lead with 2:10 left, Dixon made it 76-75 in Maryland's favor. Then, Evans, who made 10 of 15 shots, grabbed an offensive rebound and made a layup to give George Mason a 77-76 lead with 1:10 left.
Blake promptly stepped up to hit a 23-footer from the top of the key to give Maryland a 79-77 lead. He followed that by slapping the ball away from forward Jon Larranaga (eight points). Mouton grabbed the loose ball and was fouled. He converted both free throws, giving Maryland an 81-77 lead with 42.6 seconds left.