At full strength, George Mason would have been gratified defeating Northern Iowa, a Missouri Valley Conference contender. With three regulars unavailable, the Patriots drew deep satisfaction from a 76-70 victory over the Panthers on Saturday afternoon in Fairfax.
Bryon Allen, the team’s well-rounded senior guard, was scratched with a knee injury. Senior forward Jonathan Arledge missed a second game with a sore back and junior forward Erik Copes served the third of a six-game suspension.
Bolstered by senior guard Sherrod Wright’s 23 points and sophomore forward Marko Gujanicic’s 16 points, 10 rebounds and team-high four assists, Mason (3-0) pulled away in the final 21 / 2 minutes before 4,367 at Patriot Center.
With a home victory Tuesday against St. Francis (Pa.), they would forge just the second 4-0 start in program history.
“This was a big test,” Patriots Coach Paul Hewitt said of the visit by the Panthers (1-2), picked third in the 10-team MVC behind 2013 Final Four team Wichita State and Indiana State. “I told [the players] before the game: ‘This is going to tell us a lot about ourselves.’”
The performance told them that Wright can slash to the basket and, when under pressure at key moments, set up teammates for jumpers. It told them that Gujanicic, an inconsistent performer last year, is able to contribute over a full game. It told them they have the experience and mental aptitude to persevere, even with significant absences. It told them they have the depth to compete against quality foes.
Mason went ahead to stay with nine minutes left but was locked in a tight game the rest of the way.
The key moment came with the Patriots clinging to a 64-63 lead. After Panthers forward Seth Tuttle (17 points, seven rebounds) fouled out on a charging call, Wright drew a double-team while driving the baseline and whipped the ball to Patrick Holloway for a corner three-pointer with 2 minute 5 seconds remaining.
“If you drive baseline, whoever is on the opposite side goes to the corner,” said Holloway, a sophomore guard from Paul VI who, in his first career start, scored 11 points. “Sherrod drew two or three guys and gave me a good pass.”
In the last minute, the Patriots converted seven of eight free throws and Wright beat a double-team on the perimeter and drove for a finger-roll layup.
Mason made 23 of 27 free throws (85 percent), while the Panthers were 24 of 28 (86 percent). Matt Bohannon led Northern Iowa with 19 points.
Mason’s reserves provided 17 points and 13 rebounds, seven by freshman Jalen Jenkins.
Gujanicic, a 64 percent free throw shooter last year, was 10 of 10 from the line, including four in the final 14 seconds, and displayed the energy and poise missing much of his rookie campaign.
“He is fresher physically,” Hewitt said of the 6-foot-8 Serb. “He had games last year where he was the Marko I knew when we recruited him. And then there were games he had no legs. He stayed this summer [to work on strength and conditioning], and you could tell from the first practices he had a lot of energy. That is the Marko we thought we were getting.”
Patriots notes: Allen and Arledge are day-to-day, Hewitt said. . . . The program has received commitments from Trey Porter, a 6-10 center from Potomac High (Va.); Therence Mayimba, a 6-7 forward from St. James in Hagerstown; and Eric Lockett, a 6-5 forward from Atlanta.