The Patriots (7-8) avoided the rapid flurry of turnovers that has bedeviled VCU opponents since Coach Shaka Smart instituted the aggressive style four years ago. They were composed and smart and were on even terms much of the evening.
But they succumbed to VCU’s searing heat and strayed from an effective plan of attacking the basket and remaining patient in the half-court offense.
“At halftime, we felt very good about the situation,” freshman forward Jalen Jenkins said. “Even during the second half, we still felt good. We went down and came back because we knew we could beat the pressure. We just got away from rebounding and making the plays.”
Mason’s young regulars were unfazed by VCU’s challenge. In his first start, Jenkins had 10 points and 12 rebounds. Freshman point guard Marquise Moore scored all seven of his points in the first half and sophomore guard Patrick Holloway scored nine of his 11 in the second.
The veterans, however, continued to struggle. Bryon Allen had 13 points but shot 6 of 19 and Sherrod Wright, who averaged 17.5 points in the first eight games, was 2 of 8 for six points and failed to score in double figures for the sixth time in seven outings.
“What I like about those three kids is that they are fearless,” Coach Paul Hewitt said. “But we need the other guys to play. We are not talking about the future right now. We’ve got to get Sherrod back to where he was the last two years. He just looked very shaky out there.”
Facing the nation’s leaders in steals and forced turnovers, the Patriots did commit 19 turnovers. But they were not overwhelmed by the Rams (13-3, 1-0). And despite shooting 24 percent in the second half, they stuck around.
VCU’s intensity never let up, however. Briante Weber exemplified Smart’s persistent tactics when, with the outcome decided and less than a minute left, he dived to steal the ball in the backcourt and called a timeout.
“That was something else,” Smart said. “There’s not a lot of guys who would do that at that point in the game. He has an attitude of it doesn’t matter when or where or who.”
Weber finished with 12 points and five steals and Graham (St. Mary’s Ryken) posted 15 points and 10 rebounds for the A-10 favorites, who have won five straight entering Tuesday’s showdown at George Washington.
The Rams surged early in the second half to build a 10-point lead, and after a Mason run, they held the visitors without a field goal for more than five minutes. Led by Holloway, the Patriots pulled within four with about eight minutes to go, but they made just two more field goals.
VCU converted its last 10 free throw attempts – six by Weber – and finished 28 of 39 from the line. The Patriots were 9 of 16.
“I don’t think the pressure got to us in the second half,” Moore said, “but there was a stretch where they outworked us a little bit, outrebounded us, and that was the game.”