On Wednesday the Patriots’ untidy play caught up to them. A65-60 defeat to Delaware halted their six-game winning streak and left them in a three-way tie for first place with six conference games remaining.
“This has happened to us a couple of games now,” senior forward Ryan Pearson said. “We come out sluggish and get ourselves in a hole early and have to try to dig out.”
Two weeks after thumping the Blue Hens by 26 in Fairfax, the Patriots (18-6, 10-2) fell behind by 17 in the first half and shot 33.8 percent overall. They cut the deficit to two with 9 ½ minutes left, but missed 13 of their next 16 shots.
Pearson had 25 points, eight rebounds and three steals, but George Mason’s six guards combined to shoot 5 of 29 (0 for 8 three-pointers) for 20 points. Meantime, Blue Hens freshman guard Kyle Anderson scored a career-high 21 points on 8-of-11 shooting, including 5 of 7 three-pointers. Back-court partner Devon Saddler, a sophomore, hit 8 of 10 free throws and finished with 13 points.
“We just couldn’t shoot,” Patriots Coach Paul Hewitt said. “We took some bad ones early and it got us off to a bad start. At the end, it was just like the beginning.”
The Patriots had won 11 of their previous 12 but many were anxious affairs against the CAA’s lower tier. A week ago they shot 17.4 percent in the first half and 31.9 percent overall at Hofstra (2-10 in the league) but scrapped out a five-point victory.
The schedule becomes increasingly treacherous, with Saturday’s homecoming game against Old Dominion (14-9, 9-2) — which would create a four-way deadlock Thursday by beating James Madison — and two games with Virginia Commonwealth (19-5, 10-2).
The Patriots were fine for five minutes before their offensive rhythm deteriorated and the Blue Hens embarked on a 10-0 rush. Later, while the Patriots went six minutes without scoring, Delaware stretched the lead to 32-15.
During one troubling stretch, Hewitt called a timeout after his team yielded an unobstructed transition basket, then watched the Patriots commit a shot-clock violation.
“We were shooting a lot of jump shots and couldn’t get into a good offensive rhythm,” freshman guard Vaughn Gray said. “We let that affect our transition defense and our overall defense.”
But as they’ve done several times this winter, the Patriots ended the half with a flourish. Pearson scored seven points on three possessions, capped by a three-pointer, and Erik Copes stroked an eight-footer to trim the deficit to 32-24 at the break.
Delaware restored the lead to 14, but with Pearson back on pace, the Patriots answered with a 19-7 surge to crawl within 46-44. But they began forcing shots again. Pearson received a technical foul for slapping the floor while protesting a call and the Blue Hens steadily built a nine-point lead with 55 seconds left.
“We broke down in a lot of areas — defensively, we weren’t as good as we have been,” Hewitt said. “Anderson had a lot to do with it, but that’s our assignment: We have to be there when he catches it. It just wasn’t a good night.”
Patriots note: The final regular season game, Feb. 25 against VCU in Richmond, has been moved to 6 p.m. from 4 p.m. to accommodate coverage on ESPN or ESPN2.