After stroking a three-pointer with 8½ minutes left, Marko Gujanicic shouted to the rafters and punctured the Patriot Center air with his fists — an emotional release for a player laboring through his freshman year and a team sputtering through the winter.
When the George Mason forward replicated the shot two minutes later, he and the Patriots had a cooler reaction. All was finally well Tuesday night. Lifted by Gujanicic’s shooting and all-around defensive improvement, the Patriots surged in the second half and defeated James Madison, 68-57, for their 10th consecutive home victory over the Dukes.
At 6 feet 8 and 226 pounds, Gujanicic arrived from Serbia via a California prep school with an inside-outside presence. Except for two games, however, he was effective neither near nor far from the basket and was shooting less than 40 percent from the field. Since making two three-pointers in the season-opening victory over Virginia, he had shot 4 of 19 from long distance and scored in double figures once.
“Every time I see him, I keep asking him, ‘Are you Marko?’ ” George Mason Coach Paul Hewitt said. “I want to make sure because I said, ‘You ain’t playing like the guy I recruited.’ He has really been trying hard, and probably like our team, maybe a little anxious because we are not as fluid as we want to be.”
Gujanicic finished with 10 points and a career-high 10 rebounds, timely contributions for a team that hasn’t complemented leading scorer Sherrod Wright on most nights. Wright had 23 points — the eighth time he has poured in 20 — as the Patriots (10-7, 3-2) recovered from a terrible loss at UNC Wilmington on Saturday to return to the thick of the Colonial Athletic Association race.
The Dukes (9-9, 3-2) led by nine in the first half and five at intermission. Despite foul trouble on their big men, the Patriots eventually went ahead on Wright’s three-pointer with 10 minutes left.
After JMU regained a two-point lead, Gujanicic made his first three-pointer and responded to the crowd in a demonstrative manner. “It was a while [since] I hit the last one,” he said, smiling.
With the game tied at 50, Gujanicic hit his second.
“We had talked about not giving him any clean looks,” Dukes Coach Matt Brady said. “We gave him two there. We knew this game could change on a shot and he made two.”
After Bryon Allen’s steal and breakaway, Gujanicic’s perfect bounce pass to Vertrail Vaughns cutting to the basket increased the lead to seven. Vaughns added two free throws, the beginning of an 11-for-14 performance in the last five-plus minutes.
The Patriots allowed three field goals in the final nine minutes en route to their 18th victory in the past 19 meetings with the Dukes.
JMU made 5 of 10 three-pointers in the first half, but then missed all eight attempts in the second. It converted all 10 free throws in the first half, but then went 6 of 14. Freshman Ron Curry made three three-pointers before intermission, but didn’t score again and finished with 11 points.
Another key for the Patriots was rebounding. After a 51-27 deficit at UNCW, they built a 48-29 advantage Tuesday and had more offensive rebounds (21) than the Dukes’ defensive total (20). Gujanicic had six on the attacking end.
“I thought we played well against Wilmington; we just didn’t rebound the ball,” Hewitt said. “I didn’t want to look at the game and say, ‘Hey, we played awful, we gave up 82 points.’ There was one significant aspect we had to improve on in this game. I told them, ‘Don’t give up the second-chance points and we’ll be fine.’ ”