TOWSON, Md., Feb. 9 -- There was a moment when it appeared that the George Mason men were in trouble against a struggling but scrappy Towson basketball team Wednesday night. The Towson fans were into it and Coach Pat Kennedy was imploring his team to buckle down and get one more key stop.
But that's when Lamar Butler came off a screen and made a crucial three-pointer, giving George Mason a 57-53 lead with 2 minutes 6 seconds remaining. Center Jai Lewis posted up and scored on the next possession and forward Will Thomas blocked a pair of Towson shots down the stretch. To Kennedy, however, Butler's shot was the key play in George Mason's 62-57 victory in front of 1,488 at Towson Center.
"You saw the difference confidence can make in winning," Kennedy said. "Butler hits that three-pointer -- if he misses that, we might win -- and then Lewis goes inside and makes a big basket. Those were winning plays. Our guys are still learning how to win."
George Mason (13-9, 8-5) won for the sixth time in seven games despite playing without starting point guard Tony Skinn, who sat out to rest a knee injury suffered against Delaware on Jan. 31.
Without Skinn, who was George Mason's second-leading scorer and best player of late, Towson (5-18, 2-11) employed a triangle-and-two defense with the idea of limiting Butler and freshman guard John Vaughan.
The tactic worked to a degree as both players were forced into taking a few questionable shots, but Vaughan still scored 17 points while Butler added 15.
Lewis, who went to nearby Aberdeen High School and was playing in front of a large group of friends and family, scored 14 points, grabbed 14 rebounds and blocked three shots in 34 minutes.
In addition to playing without Skinn, George Mason had to overcome a ragged start and a rough shooting night at the free throw line. Just four days after making 29 of 30 attempts in a win over James Madison, the Patriots made only 12 of 24 free throws against Towson.
Towson, which has lost six straight and nine of its last 10, jumped out to an early 16-8 lead, survived a 16-2 first-half run by George Mason and drew as close as 52-51 on a short jump shot by Cantrell Fletcher with 3:31 left.
However, the Tigers suffered another frustrating loss because George Mason was able to make big shots down the stretch and they were not. Despite a strong game by forward Lawrence Hamm, who scored 15 points and grabbed 17 rebounds, Towson shot 36 percent, made only 2 of 16 three-pointers and never could come up with a game-changing play the way the Patriots did in going to Butler.
"Coach drew that play up in the huddle," Butler said of his 200th career three-pointer. "So, I knew I was going to take it. Then Gabe [Norwood] gave me a perfect pass and I was able to get a good shot off. That was big because three-pointers can take the spirit out of a team. I just knew that if I hit it, it might take the spirit out of their crowd and put us in control."
Skinn, who has been resting the sore knee since Saturday, will be evaluated Friday, according to George Mason Coach Jim Larranaga. In his place, freshman Jordan Carter made his first start and finished with five points, five assists and two turnovers in a season-high 26 minutes.