- Kyle Whelliston, Senior Writer, ESPN.com
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RICHMOND, Va. -- It doesn't appear much like a potent talisman. It's just a chain of gold-colored carabiners linked together, each with a swath of athletic tape labelled with a pair of initials in smudged black Sharpie.
The chain lay almost exclusively on the Virginia Commonwealth bench all throughout the weekend at the CAA tourney, until it found itself around VCU senior guard Jesse Pellot-Rosa's neck Monday night at around 9:08 p.m. Eastern Time.
Pellot-Rosa ascended a ladder, and clipped off a piece of the net with a pair of dull scissors. His Rams had defeated George Mason 65-59 to capture the Colonial Athletic Association tourney championship, along with the NCAA automatic bid that goes with the title.
"That was something [head coach Anthony Grant] did to inspire us to defend better, to rebound better and play unselfishly," explained Pellot-Rosa in the stands afterwards, still wearing the chain around his neck, examining the links. "Coach sat us down before the conference tournament, he said everybody's got a job to do, everybody's got to be committed to their roles. That's what this symbolizes, everybody's got their own personal link."
"It's about unity and commitment," added 6-7 junior wide-body Wil Fameni, who contributed 13 points and eight points in the title game. "It represents our love for each other."
The links that connect VCU's players were stretched to the very limit on Monday night -- last year's Cinderella team looked poised to add to their recent list of improbable feats by parlaying an 8-8 conference record and a No. 6 seed into a second straight NCAA bid. By shutting down the Rams' strength -- perimeter scoring -- and allowing the VCU frontcourt of Fameni and Calvin Roland anything they wanted inside, George Mason stuck around by trading allowed 3s for more manageable 2s. GMU held a 31-27 lead at halftime, and spent most of the second half answering every VCU comeback attempt with a key jumper or transition layup.
At around the three-minute mark, the Patriots moved in for the kill. Unleashing a 1-3-1 zone that confused and confounded the Rams' offense, George Mason scored on two straight possessions, building a 57-52 lead with 2:22 to go.
But the Commonwealth chain never broke, steeling around one particularly unbreakable link. In just 42 quick seconds, VCU sophomore guard Eric Maynor used two consecutive swipes and transition layups (and a bonus free throw) to bridge the gap and leave the Mason supporters in stunned silence. The Patriot players seemingly were stunned as well; Mason didn't score again until a meaningless and uncontested Gabe Norwood jumper with seven seconds left.
"The chain is real strong," shouted Maynor, a player more known for his distribution (a CAA-best 3.2-to-1 assist-to-turnover ratio) than his scoring, moments after being named tournament MVP. "If we're not doing what we're supposed to do, we aren't holding together the chain. When we link up, it's about commitment, man."
"We've been a family all year long," explained first-year head coach Grant, who also helped stop George Mason's run in the national semifinals as an assistant at Florida. "Our guys have been committed to each other, and this is just a symbol of our commitment. I think it's something our guys take pride in ... this is the only chance this team will have to be together, and they understand that. They understand that we have the opportunity to do some special things together, so we came up with a symbol of that for them to latch on to."
And now that the Rams have conquered the Colonial as double champions with a 16-2 league record, 27 overall wins against just six losses and a three-day rush to the tourney title, they'll be dressed up for the Big Dance.
"It goes everywhere we go now," said Maynor. "Every day in practice, we link up before we step out on the floor. We might get in the huddle, put that chain up, say 'one, two, three,' whatever. That chain is very powerful."
This being March, the maddest month of the year, everybody wants a piece of something successful. The chain has already caught on with the VCU faithful, and has in one short weekend has become the CAA's hottest fashion statement. All around the sold-out Richmond Coliseum -- a building in which the fans of Richmond-based VCU outnumbered those of Mason's by 4-to-1 -- many Rams fans were sporting homemade chains of their own. Some chains were careful replicas fashioned from materials purchased from local camping stores, and a number of them were gold-painted plastic hoops.
"I saw it when I was looking around the stands and stuff," Maynor said. "Everybody's got a chain in the stands. It's real big."
For better or worse, the NCAA Tournament has become a massive commercial enterprise; the Big Dance has the power to cheapen a cherished team symbol with blatant commerce, to mechanically duplicate it for mass consumption. George Mason's "Kryptonite Kids" of last season spawned all sorts of merchandising opportunities, including green-colored "Kryptonite Ale" at Indianapolis bars during the Final Four. Can Virginia Commonwealth's 2007 chain of gold match the success of the 2006 green glowing necklaces?
"I ain't worried about what they had last year," Maynor said. "This year, it's VCU. We're linkin' up, and we're going dancin'."
Kyle Whelliston is the founder of midmajority.com and is a regular contributor to ESPN.com.
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