VCU's Matt Coward holds the team's symbol of unity -- a gold chain -- after its upset of Duke.
BUFFALO, N.Y. -- It was a small gesture, easy to miss in the last-minute melee of an NCAA tournament thriller, but if you saw the wave, you knew how the ending would unfold. The ball had barely emerged from the net after Duke's DeMarcus Nelson laid it in to tie the game at 77-77 with 10.3 seconds left, when VCU guard Eric Maynor turned toward his coach, Anthony Grant, and with two motions of his hand, conveyed a message:
No need for a timeout. I'm taking over.
Few seniors would have the cojones -- or the confidence -- to make such a move, with their 11th-seeded team's Cinderella life on the line against one of college basketball's most venerable programs. Maynor happens to be a 6-foot-2, 165-pound wisp of a sophomore, but no ordinary underclassman. In the Colonial Athletic Association finals, he scored nine straight points in the final two minutes to knock off 2006 Final Four darling George Mason, and on Thursday, hit two consecutive Rams field goals leading up to the last sequence. So when Grant spied Maynor motioning from the other end of the court, he was not worried, but rather, "excited -- because I wasn't calling a timeout."
"There were 10 seconds to go in the game, and I was going to put the ball in his hands, and let him give us an opportunity to win in regulation."
Maynor raced upcourt, a cold-blooded ballhandler surveying the chaotic scene in front of him. "I felt like they were going to be in a scramble situation," he said of Duke's defenders, "and they weren't going to be able to match up." While the Blue Devils -- freshman Jon Scheyer in particular -- seemed unable to anticipate Maynor's final move, some of his VCU teammates were well aware of what was about to occur. They affectionately call Maynor "Bobblehead," because his head appears disproportionately large, and as senior guard Jesse Pellot-Rosa said, "When he crosses over, his head bobbles -- all 'wa-wa-wa-wa-wa-like,' -- but if he doesn't bobble, we know he's pulling up."
Bobblehead didn't wobble, and Maynor drained a free-throw-lane length jumper with 1.8 seconds left, putting the Rams up 79-77 and sending the crowd at HSBC Arena into a state of frenzy. Maynor -- who would finish with 22 points, eight assists and three steals -- jumped into the arms of teammate Jamal Shuler as Duke called a timeout, and reserve Matt Coward sprinted off the bench holding up the gold chain that has served as the symbol of VCU's unity since late February. Blue Devils point guard Greg Paulus, whose pas de deux with Maynor had been the game's biggest storyline, missed a desperation heave at the buzzer. The big dance had its first and only big upset of opening day, and Duke's run of nine straight Sweet 16 appearances was halted.
Maynor's mom, Barbara Johnson, ran down to the front row of the VCU section in the aftermath, in hopes of getting a word in with her son, a Fayetteville, N.C., product who had grown up as a Tar Heels fan and thus had an extensive history of despising Duke. Thursday, he got to take matters into his own hands. "That was the best shot in the world!" Henderson screamed as Maynor was being interviewed live on CBS. "Look at him down there! He's still got energy!"
Indeed, looking at interviewees Maynor and Grant, the two men of the hour, one got the feeling that VCU's run in this tournament is far from finished. There are NCAA tournament upsets that come off as flukes, but this was not one of them; the Rams clawed back from a 13-point deficit early in the first half to trail by only two at halftime, and never lost their composure in a tense last 20 minutes. In Maynor, who plays like a senior, and fellow guards Pellot-Rosa and B.A. Walker, who actually are seniors, VCU has a battle-tested, hot-shooting backcourt that stacks up against any team -- mid-major or major -- in the country. And in Grant, the first-year head coach who was an assistant on Florida's national championship team last season, they have a motivator who is one of the rising stars of the profession.
In the last week of the Rams' regular season, coming off a BracketBusters loss to Bradley, Grant received an idea from mentor Billy Donovan -- to come up with a symbol that represented the team's desire for greatness. VCU was on its way to a stellar regular-season finish at 24-6 and 16-2 in the CAA, but Grant needed a way to make sure his players didn't get complacent. Out of his chat with Donovan, the chain -- a simple string of gold-painted carabiner clips, one for each player, with his initials written on athletic tape -- was born.
"We had a lot more that we wanted to accomplish, and what it was going to take was a tremendous commitment on their part," Grant said. "It was as simple as a decision. If they decided they would stay together ... we could accomplish these special things. They made that decision, and the chain is just a symbol of that commitment."
The Rams linked up for the CAA tournament, pulling off a stunning comeback over last year's historic NCAA giant-killers, the Patriots, in the title game. Afterwards, Maynor said George Mason guard Gabe Norwood wished him good luck -- and told him to go and win some games in the NCAAs. In the locker room on Thursday, VCU's players ceremoniously reconstructed the chain, one player at a time, before taking the floor against Duke.
The CAA's latest David has traded in its stones for golden carabiners. Every player has a link, and every link represents a different role. Grant, laughing, said that Maynor's responsibilities are simple: "To make shots at the end of the game."
Grant was then asked what he considered was his link's assignment. "I don't know," he said. "I guess, to tell [the players] what theirs are."
One he is adamant about not telling his Rams -- despite what so many pundits are saying -- is that they are this year's George Mason, even if their route to NCAA tournament glory went through the Patriots. "I don’t see it that way," he said. "We're just trying to be VCU."
The thing is, coach, that in the course of being VCU, you're starting evoke memories of George Mason. And that, in Cinderella parlance, is hardly a negative development.