Wright committed turnovers on consecutive possessions, and the Patriots watched a late lead evaporate over the final minute in a heartbreaking 88-87 loss to No. 16 Massachusetts at Patriot Center on Wednesday.
It was George Mason’s fourth straight defeat and eighth in 10 games, but the latest setback could be the most devastating. With 41.3 seconds remaining, the Patriots led 86-81 and were on pace to secure the program’s first victory over a ranked opponent since Nov. 22, 2007.
But things deteriorated from there, and the collapse in large part was due to the heroics of Massachusetts point guard Chaz Williams, who finished with 26 points and eight assists. The 5-foot-9 senior scored the Minutemen’s next five points, capitalizing on a missed free throw by George Mason senior Bryon Allen (21 points) and a sideline inbounds infraction by Wright as he attempted to complete a pass with 24 seconds to go. The sequence cut George Mason’s lead to 87-86 with 17.7 seconds left.
Following a timeout by Patriots Coach Paul Hewitt, Wright caught the ensuing inbounds pass facing a Massachusetts press, just as planned. Before he could get to the foul line, though, Williams stripped Wright and immediately drove to the lane. His floater bounced directly off the backboard, deflected off the hands of a teammate and then landed into the waiting arms of guard Derrick Gordon for what turned out to be the game-winning putback with 8.1 seconds remaining.
Wright, who matched Williams with 26 points, was not available to speak to reporters after the contest. Hewitt, though, saw no moral victory in another loss that went down to the wire.
“It’s not encouraging. We’re a good team. We’ve got to play better. These guys know,” a frustrated Hewitt said after George Mason dropped to 2-6 in games decided by five points or fewer this year.
“I tell them all the time, ‘It’s disappointing to be 7-10. We shouldn’t be 7-10. We’re a better team than this.’ There’s nothing encouraging about this night. Nothing.”
Other than the closing moments, George Mason (7-10, 0-3) proved resilient.
The first half was fast and furious, setting the stage for a game with 14 lead changes and eight ties. Wright scored 12 points in less than four minutes to start the second half, and the Patriots’ lead grew as large as 67-59 with 11:38 remaining.
But Williams and forward Cady Lalanne (19 points, nine rebounds) would not be deterred, and a 9-1 run tied the score at 68 heading into the under-eight minute media timeout. Massachusetts Coach Derek Kellogg switched to a zone defense, and George Mason hit just 35.5 percent of its shots in the second half.
“It was a good decision by them to slow the game down,” Allen acknowledged.
Still, the Patriots would not go down without a fight, surging to a 75-70 lead after a three-point play by Allen.
Massachusetts (15-1, 3-0) came right back with another 9-1 run and took a three-point lead with 3:30 to go. But a three-pointer by guard Patrick Holloway, another three-point-play from Allen and Wright’s free throws helped George Mason regain an 86-81 advantage.
Seconds later, though, it was Hewitt who walked off the floor exasperated after another late-game collapse foiled his team’s upset bid.
“Sherrod played a great game. He did everything he could to help his team win,” Hewitt said. “But we’ve got to get better, and I’ve got to do a better job with these kids helping them close the deal.”