CLEVELAND -- The current George Mason players have nothing but respect for the 2005-06 Patriots team that made it to the Final Four. Many of them are at the school now at least partly because that team raised the profile of the program.
But, honestly, talking about the past gets a little tiring sometimes.
"Every interview you do, every person you talk to wants to talk about the '06 team," sophomore guard Luke Hancock said. "We're definitely trying to make our own name."
While these current Patriots have a long way to go to match the 2006 legacy, they've finally made a new March memory.
Friday's 61-57 win over Villanova wasn't an upset, since George Mason was the No. 8 seed to Villanova's No. 9. But it was the school's first NCAA tournament win since that 2006 run, and it came in pretty dramatic fashion.
Down 10 late in the first half, the Patriots kept hanging around until Mike Morrison's rebound dunk with 55 seconds left gave them their first lead of the second half. After Villanova's Corey Fisher was fouled on a 3-pointer and made all three free throws, Hancock provided the play that can be added to the George Mason highlight library.
The play was designed as a double high ball screen. Hancock, though, refused the screen and jabbed to his right, intending to cut back left and then either look for teammate Cam Long in the corner or shoot. Villanova's Corey Stokes was determined not to let Hancock go right, however, and he overplayed that side. As Stokes went flying by toward the lane, Hancock calmly stepped back, paused and then drained the clinching 3 with 20 seconds to go.
"I wasn't the first option coming off the screens," he said. "I was definitely looking to penetrate and pitch, because we've got such good shooters on this team."
Neither team shot all that well or even took good shots most of the game. For a while, it looked like George Mason's season would get canceled by an episode of The Two Coreys. Villanova's Stokes and Fisher dominated the first half, combining for 22 of their team's first 23 points and 24 overall by halftime. Fisher was getting into the lane easily, opening up 3-point shots for Stokes, who made three in a row at one point.
The Patriots then concentrated on picking up the two guards closer to half court, giving into their chests defensively and fighting through ball screens more ferociously.
"When we got down early, we wanted to try and speed them up a little bit," forward Ryan Pearson said. "Their guys were taking their time, and we were letting them run their offense. We had to keep Fisher out of the lane and not give up second shots."
Stokes and Fisher went 0-for-8 combined to start the second half and would finish 11-of-32 from the floor. The ending had to seem like a recurring nightmare for the Wildcats, who closed their season with six straight losses and a 5-11 mark from Jan. 17 on. They blew leads and were unable to close out games in many of those defeats.
"In our program, we talk about each class's legacy, and this class has been to the Sweet 16, final eight, Final Four," Villanova coach Jay Wright said. "But they've endured a really tough season that would have crumbled a lot of guys personally."
The 2006 legacy has hung over every George Mason team since. Morrison wore a T-shirt that read, "We are this year's George Mason," to the postgame news conference, anticipating the inevitable questions about the school's most famous team.
"We've been forced into a lot of comparisons," he said. "And this is why it's my favorite shirt. I just like to ignore what everybody says and just worry about my own team."
It's not 2006 anymore. But 2011 is worth talking about.