That made it six straight defeats to end the season for the Wildcats (21-12), the first time that's happened to a team that reached the NCAAs since the field was expanded to 64 teams in 1985.
After a 16-1 start, the Wildcats, who were seeded No. 9 in the East Region, finished 5-11, including eight defeats in their last 10 games, and sent their seniors - Corey Fisher, Corey Stokes and Antonio Pena - out on the sourest of notes.
"We had some tough breaks, some shots we take that normally go in and drop down the stretch," said Fisher, who closed his 'Nova career with 20 points. "But we still had a chance. We were defending at the other end. And they just made some plays down the stretch."
Conversely, the Wildcats didn't make the plays they had to make, which is why the Patriots (27-6) will be playing top seed Ohio State (33-2) Sunday in the third round.
In some ways, Friday's game was reminiscent of the Wildcats' second-half collapse in their March 8 Big East tournament game against South Florida. The biggest lead they held in the second half (nine with 16 minutes to play) wasn't as sizeable as the 16-point advantage against USF, but this was a game that was theirs for the taking again.
Leading 54-48 after Fisher's floater in the lane with 3:28 to play, George Mason turned the ball over on back-to-back possessions. But the Wildcats failed to convert - Fisher was called for an offensive foul, then missed a three-point attempt.
So Mason exhaled and got a three-point basket from Isaiah Tate and a three-point play from Ryan Pearson to tie the game with 1:34 to play. Between possessions, Pena missed a pair of free throws, and Mouphtaou Yarou missed the front end of a 1-and-1 on the Cats' trip after Pearson tied the game.
"I can fault free-throw shooting," Villanova coach Jay Wright said. "The two guys that missed free throws are not great free-throw shooters. Antonio hit back rim; it wasn't like he shanked it or anything."
But Yarou and Maurice Sutton then failed to box out George Mason's Mike Morrison on an offensive rebound, leading to a putback dunk with 55.6 seconds left that gave the Patriots their first advantage since they led 7-6 less than five minutes into the game.
The Wildcats went to Fisher, who was fouled on a three-point attempt and sank all three free throws with 31.7 seconds remaining to give them their last lead, 57-56. But the Cats couldn't hold on.
The Patriots' Luke Hancock dribbled to the three-point line, appeared to want to drive, then stopped and fired, catching Stokes off guard, for the trey that gave Mason a two-point edge.
"I took away his right, he goes right all the time," Stokes said. "He hit a tough shot. I was just doing what the scouting report said and he hit a stepback three-pointer."
With no timeouts and 19.8 seconds to play, the Wildcats needed a score. Maalik Wayns drove and missed but Sutton tied up Pearson on the rebound, and the arrow pointed to Villanova. Wright asked the officials to check the time - they added a few ticks to 9.1 seconds - and stole 30 seconds to diagram a play.
"They were coming out of the huddle, they believed they were going to make that play," Wright said.
The play went to Stokes on the left wing. He couldn't get off a three, so he dribbled to the baseline inside the arc and fired, but the ball went off the side of the backboard. Pearson grabbed the rebound and threw an 80-foot pass to Morrison, who gleefully dunked in the final second.
Just like that, it was over. Wright had been so proud about how the Wildcats recovered from the South Florida disappointment to become excited about a new season and a chance to wipe out the memory of the terrible close to the Big East portion of their year.
However, the result was the same. The disappointment was more unpleasant because the season is now over.
"It's tough," Fisher said, "being it's my last college game and doing it with a bunch of guys I love and a father figure [Wright], especially Stokes and Tone, guys I knew before I came here. But we did a lot of positive things, no matter whether we lost or won the game today. Can't be negative."
Contact staff writer Joe Juliano at 215-854-4494 or firstname.lastname@example.org