George Mason vs. Santa Clara: Patriots force a decisive third game in CBI with win

John McDonnell/THE WASHINGTON POST - George Mason Coach Paul Hewitt, shown earlier this season, calls the College Basketball Invitational “just a great experience for us.”

It’s April, and the George Mason Patriots are still playing competitive basketball. Their NCAA tournament hopes were dashed a month ago and the National Invitation Tournament was never in reach, but in a third-tier event that Coach Paul Hewitt entered to gain more experience for his junior-stocked team, the Patriots continue to extend their season.

With a 73-66 victory over visiting Santa Clara on Wednesday night, the Patriots forced a decisive third game in the College Basketball Invitational finals at 7 p.m. on Friday at Patriot Center.

Guard Sherrod Wright had 20 points and 10 rebounds and guard Bryon Allen added 13 of his 15 points in the first half as George Mason (22-15) avenged a Game 1 defeat Monday in Northern California.

“We’re playing our best ball of the year,” Hewitt said.

At times, they are. The Patriots claimed a 39-26 halftime lead, endured a rough start to the second half, and then made just enough free throws down the stretch to hold off the Broncos (25-12).

The tournament’s odd dynamic — a best-of-three championship and a cross-country trip for both teams on a single off-day between the first two contests — called for a unique Game 2 setting: George Mason’s Recreation & Athletic Complex, which accommodated 1,280 spectators. Patriot Center (capacity 9,840) was unavailable because of a college fair Wednesday and a Green Day concert Thursday.

Under volleyball and wrestling banners, the Patriots embraced the deafening arena — which also serves as one of their practice courts — and fed off the noise and energy.

“Great atmosphere,” Allen said. “Felt like I was back in high school.”

Said Wright: “I didn’t expect it to be that loud.”

It was particularly loud behind the Santa Clara bench, where the George Mason pep band performed.

“It can’t be any louder being three feet from our bench,” Broncos Coach Kerry Keating said of the music-makers. “I went over and shook the bandleader’s hand. He’s the most important guy in here.”

Hewitt said he would be open to scheduling future preseason or early-season games at the RAC. “I loved it,” he said.

The Patriots took advantage of the intimate environment, building a 16-point lead and claiming a 39-26 halftime advantage on Allen’s buzzer-beating layup.

Santa Clara’s Kevin Foster scored 28 points in the first meeting but missed all four field goal attempts and had two points in the first half. He ended up with 16 but was 6 of 15 from the field and 2 of 6 from the line.

The Patriots went scoreless for five minutes after intermission, but after Santa Clara pulled within six, freshman Patrick Holloway recharged the Patriots with seven points, including a three-pointer that restored a 10-point lead.

Poor free throw shooting and turnovers allowed the Broncos to cut the deficit to four with 16 seconds left, but Brandon Clark failed to complete a three-point opportunity and the Patriots closed it out with a free throw and dunk.

Win or lose Friday, Hewitt said, the CBI has been “just a great experience for us.”

 
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