For most of Saturday afternoon’s Virginia 2A state quarterfinal at Robinson, George Mason’s best player was rooted to a chair, chained down by foul trouble. Robert Tartt squirmed anxiously with only two points to his name as his teammates let a seemingly insurmountable 17-point lead over Graham melt into a tie game down the stretch.
Tartt promptly picked up his fourth foul near the start of the fourth quarter, but with the plucky visitors from southwest Virginia gaining steam, the unbeaten Mustangs could no longer afford to keep their top scorer on the sideline.
“I felt like I let them down,” Tartt said. “I needed to bring something and show something, especially since the other team was talking and saying I couldn’t do anything. It got me feeling some type of way.”
With 5 minutes 47 seconds remaining, Tartt erupted. The senior playmaker poured in 18 points in those final minutes, propelling George Mason into the semifinals with a dramatic 74-72 victory.
Tartt’s emotions pushed him to a breaking point after he missed two free throws with six minutes left in the game. The Mustangs (29-0) grabbed the rebound off his second miss, and Tartt converted a putback to mark his first field goal since the first quarter.
From that point forward, Tartt was more unstoppable force than mere basketball player. He scored another bucket on Mason’s next possession, then stole a Graham pass, sprinted to the basket and converted a three-point play to extend his team’s lead to 57-49. It was one of three three-point plays down the stretch for Tartt, who rattled off 12 straight points in a 2 1/2 -minute span.
“He’s the most relentless player I’ve ever coached in the 28 years I’ve done this. At 6-1, the things he can do inside and the confidence he has in himself is just off the charts,” George Mason Coach Chris Capannola said. “You’ve got to ride a kid like that. That’s why we’re at where we’re at.”
But Graham (18-6), fresh off a 5 1/2 -hour bus ride from Bluefield, Va., proved far scrappier than any team Mason had faced during its dominant season in Conference 35 . Junior guard Nick Morgan buried five three-pointers in the second half to keep the G-Men afloat, and Roman Workman scored 13 of his team-high 23 points in the fourth quarter.
With 15 seconds left, Tartt turned it over off the inbound, and Workman hit a layup to tie the score at 72. But senior point guard Elliot Mercado took the ensuing inbound pass at half court, beat his man off the dribble and dished underneath to senior center Douglas Bossart, who converted the game-winning layup with two seconds left.
Senior Josh Allen scored 17 of his team-high 23 points in the first half to pace the Mustangs. George Mason will face Greensville County in a Friday semifinal at VCU’s Siegel Center in Richmond.
That hectic finish, in Capannola’s eyes, should instill confidence in the Mustangs as the going gets tougher in Richmond next week.
“It’s got to help us to know we can do it,” Capannola said. “You can practice it, but in a game like that you don’t know what’s going to happen.”