BLACKSBURG, Va. — The last time George Mason’s Paul Hewitt coached a game at Virginia Tech’s Cassell Coliseum, he was ejected before halftime. His latest visit may have gone worse.
In Hewitt’s second straight overtime finish in as many contests, the coach suffered his first loss since arriving in Fairfax as George Mason couldn’t weather a wave of turnovers and sloppy play and fell to Florida International, 79-76, in a first-round matchup of the NIT Season Tip-Off. Instead of facing Virginia Tech with a chance to advance to the tournament’s semifinals at Madison Square Garden, the Patriots (1-1) will take on Monmouth Tuesday at 8 p.m. in a consolation game.
After scoring just one field goal in the first four minutes of the extra session, George Mason had a chance to send the game to a second overtime after consecutive three-pointers by guard Vertrail Vaughns cut Florida International’s lead to three. But a three-pointer by Ryan Pearson and a desperation heave by Vaughns at the buzzer landed well short and the Panthers escaped with an unexpected victory.
Though the Patriots shot a better percentage from the field than Florida International, they were done in by 21 turnovers playing the fast-break style Hewitt is trying to implement this season.
The biggest culprits were freshmen guards Corey Edwards and Bryon Allen, who combined for 11 turnovers as senior Andre Cornelius continues to serve a 10-game suspension after pleading guilt to credit card fraud earlier this month.
“We’ve got to make sure we look at the big picture,” said Hewitt, who was ejected from a game at Virginia Tech last February when he was still coaching at Georgia Tech. “If we take better care of the ball, certainly we win the game. As we develop – and we’re talking about young point guards and they’re clearly going to get better – but you make that one play, it’s a whole different feeling.”
The coach was referring to the final moments of regulation, after George Mason climbed out of a nine-point second-half hole to take a two-point lead with less than a minute left. Florida International guard Cameron Bell missed a layup, but teammate DeJuan Wright grabbed the rebound and was fouled by George Mason’s Sherrod Wright as his put back went through the hoop with 10 seconds remaining.
DeJuan Wright, however, missed the ensuing free throw, and George Mason junior Ryan Pearson hit the back of the rim on a free throw jumper just before the buzzer sounded to send the game to overtime.
Wright led Florida International with 23 points, while guard Jeremy Allen chipped in 20.
“You get that rebound, and you’re going to the foul line to try and close it out,” Hewitt lamented.
Up until the end of regulation, though, Sherrod Wright was the main reason George Mason had the lead to begin with. Down by nine following a 17-4 run by Florida International after halftime, the Patriots used a 12-4 surge to storm back into the game with less than eight minutes remaining. Twice it was Wright that cut George Mason’s deficit to one – once with a three-pointer and again on a pull-up jumper with about four minutes left in the game. Wright then gave the Patriots their first lead since the first half, 64-62, with a three pointer just after the final media timeout. He finished with 16 points, all of which came after halftime. Pearson added 18 points and 10 rebounds while Vaughns finished with 16 points.
But Florida International, coached by former NBA great Isiah Thomas, seemed to be one step ahead all night. Though the Patriots had a decided size advantage, the Panthers’ zone defense seemed to stifle George Mason’s plan to feed the post at times. On the other end, Florida International’s four-guard lineup created serious matchup issues for the Patriots.
The first half saw George Mason fall behind by seven early only to claw back and tie the score six times before halftime. But “we lacked energy,” Pearson said afterwards, and George Mason never did look completely in sync playing in front of a sparse crowd of less than 1,000, committing 10 turnovers and drawing more than a few exasperated looks from Hewitt.
That, as it turned out, is how the coach left Cassell Coliseum as well.
“I just think our younger guys, they have to get used to playing at the speed of the game,” Hewitt said. “We turned it over 21 times and that was the difference in the basketball game.”