George Mason scraps its way to a key CAA win over Old Dominion
By John Feinstein,
As soon as the halftime buzzer sounded at Patriot Center on Saturday afternoon, Old Dominion Coach Blaine Taylor headed not for his locker room but for the scorer's table.
"Give me the scorebook," he said to official scorer Tim Lander, who complied quickly.
Taylor looked at the book for a moment, found what he was looking for and slammed it down on the table. Lander almost became the first official scorer in basketball history to literally have the book thrown at him. Taylor had wanted to be certain that what he thought to be true was in fact true: his team hadn't shot a single free throw in the first half.
"We took 28 shots from where we shoot and we don't get to the foul line?" he said later. "How is that possible?"
No doubt the lack of free throws bothered Taylor. But what undoubtedly bothered him more was the halftime score: George Mason 24, Old Dominion 21. That's after the Patriots had scored all of four points in the first 11 minutes of the game.
"They missed nine of their first 10 shots and had five turnovers and we were only up five," he said later. "You would have liked to have had more of a margin at that point."
Opportunity lost for the Monarchs, game (perhaps) saved for the Patriots. In the last 29 minutes before a raucous sellout crowd of 9,840, George Mason outscored Old Dominion, 58-36, leading to a 62-45 final score and leaving the Patriots in a first-place tie with Virginia Commonwealth in the Colonial Athletic Association.
There wasn't a lot of prettiness to go around in this game, but few in the building really cared about that.
"When you've got a crowd like that, you get on a run of any kind it gives you momentum pretty quickly," said Cam Long, who has been superb during his team's nine-game winning streak - the last loss coming at Old Dominion four weeks ago. "We just had to calm ourselves down in the first half."
Once they calmed down and started to find space against a very good ODU defense, the Patriots took control of the game. Long finished with 14 points and six rebounds and Ryan Pearson, who goes to the basket much the same way Adrian Peterson runs with a football - head down, knocking people out of the way like bowling pins - finished with 18 points and 11 rebounds.
"He has an unorthodox style," Taylor said. "But it's effective."
Right now, everyone in green and gold is playing pretty effectively. A year ago, with one of the youngest teams in the country, George Mason came apart in the final weeks of the season, losing 8 of 10 to go from the NCAA tournament bubble to a first-round meltdown in something called the CollegeInsider.com tournament.
More often than not under Coach Jim Larranaga, the Patriots have been strong finishers, most notably in March of 2006 when they made their miracle run to the Final Four. After last season, Larranaga knew some things had to change.
"Because we were so young, there was a tendency for guys to think the way to get more playing time was to score," he said. "I told them and told them that wasn't the case but they didn't hear me. We have to be a good defensive team first and then can be good on offense. I had to get them to understand that if we were going to be good again."
That said, Larranaga also felt the need to change his offense. Though Mason traditionally has been a team that runs its offense through the low post (think George Evans and Jai Lewis), he decided to move Mike Morrison away from the basket to the high post to create more space for a team filled with players who can take the ball to the basket. And, instead of asking one player to be the primary ballhandler, he split up the job among Long, Luke Hancock and Andre Cornelius.
The player most affected by that change may be Cornelius. He has more freedom to spot up and shoot on offense but, more importantly, he has become the team's defensive catalyst.
"It's been night and day," Larranaga said. "Last year he had moments where he started us on defense. This year he's done it from Day One. When he attacks on defense, we're a different team."
Cornelius did that Saturday, making the ODU guards miserable. Normally a team that pounds the ball inside - thus Taylor's point about where his team shoots from - the Monarchs launched 10 three-point shots in the first half. Kent Bazemore made the first one. After that, ODU was 0 of 14 from beyond the arc, which will get you beat on almost day, even if you get to the line 18 times in the second half, as Taylor's team did.
There was plenty of energy in the building all afternoon. People were lining up in the rain long before the doors opened, knowing how important the game was for both teams. The CAA is a very good league this season, one that should merit three NCAA tournament bids. Virginia Commonwealth and George Mason are very good teams, and so is Old Dominion. Teams like Hofstra, James Madison and Drexel aren't that far behind. And yet the conference will be hard-pressed to get three bids.
"I don't think we get forgiven as much as some of the schools in the BCS leagues do for losses like this," Taylor said. "Someone in a BCS league loses on the road to a good team by double digits and it's chalked up to the old college try and no big deal.
"I always say be careful what you wish for. I can remember league meetings where we said to one another, 'Gee, it would be great if we were deeper, if we had more good teams.' Well, we've got that now and we're beating up on each other a little bit."
Actually quite a bit. The other night, William & Mary won at James Madison. George Mason lost at Hofstra in January and Old Dominion lost its conference opener at Delaware. All of which means the CAA tournament should be a donnybrook.
As Larranaga and Taylor passed in the hallway about 20 minutes after the game ended Saturday, they shook hands. Seeing his rival with his head down, Larranaga said, "Hey, Blaine, it's a really good league."
One with very little margin for error from here to Selection Sunday. Taylor already knew that. He knew it at halftime. Larranaga knows it, too. Saturday was a big-time game in a big-time atmosphere between two very good teams.
The question now is whether the selection committee will understand that five weeks from now.
For more from the author, visit his blog at www.feinsteinonthebrink.com.