George Mason Coach Jim Larranaga tried not to let on to his players the importance of yesterday's game against North Carolina Wilmington, but he knew it was a critical game.
"We're so darn young," Larranaga said. "I don't want to put a lot of unnecessary pressure [on them, but] this is a game we must play well and do everything we possibly can to win. I thought our guys responded well."
Faced with the possibility of dropping back-to-back Colonial Athletic Association games, the Patriots ground out a 74-69 victory over the Seahawks before 3,036 at Patriot Center.
George Mason (7-5, 2-1) moved into a four-way tie for second place in the league and tied Larranaga with John Linn for most wins in school history. The Patriots, who lost to Virginia Commonwealth on Wednesday, had not lost two consecutive home CAA games since the 1997-98 season.
Surprisingly, freshmen and sophomores carried the Patriots. Sophomore guard Gabe Norwood scored a career-high 14 points and added four rebounds and three steals. (Norwood leads the CAA in steals with 2.4 per game.) Freshman forward Will Thomas had seven points and a team-high five rebounds. He also blocked a shot.
"They're contributing a lot," junior Jai Lewis said. "They're starting to learn the system, know what shots to take, what to do."
George Mason's top three scorers -- Lewis, Lamar Butler and Tony Skinn -- had off nights. Butler, the CAA player of the week, was in foul trouble most of the second half. He made the Patriots' only three-point baskets, finishing 3 of 5 from behind the arc. Butler had 12 points, but also six turnovers. Skinn, who was wearing a bandage above his right eye because of a collision against VCU, missed 8 of 11 shots, including all five of his three-point attempts. He made 9 of 10 free throws to finish with 15 points. Lewis was in foul trouble in the first half and scored 12 of his 14 points in the second half.
UNC Wilmington (7-5, 2-1) kept the score close by not allowing George Mason open shots from the perimeter and by double-teaming Lewis near the basket. The Seahawks, who rank third in the CAA in scoring defense (62.7 points per game), held the Patriots to three three-pointers -- four less than they average a game.
With its first two options denied, George Mason scored by driving to the basket and drawing fouls. Wilmington finished with 29 fouls and had three players foul out. The Patriots attempted three times as many free throws as the Seahawks, scoring 25 points at the line.
With George Mason leading 67-64 with just more than a minute remaining, Butler missed a three-point shot. Norwood collected a crucial offensive rebound and Wilmington eventually fouled Skinn, who sank both free throws to extend the lead.
Gant's Shot Sparks Bison
Will Gant's eight-footer with two-tenths of a second remaining gave Howard a 79-77, come-from-behind victory over Morgan State at Burr Gymnasium.
Morgan State led by eight with 2:31 left, but Howard took a 77-75 lead on Darryl Hudson's three-point play with 14 seconds to go. The Bears tied it on Chris Grant's shot with 9.3 seconds remaining, but he missed the ensuing free throw. Gant then took the ball upcourt and scored on a floater.
"I felt that if I could get the shot up, it would go in," said Gant, a sophomore guard who finished with 12 points, 8 rebounds and 8 assists. "They were scrambling on defense, so I just took advantage of the opportunity because people were out of position."
Cliffone Ault led Howard with 22 points, and Hudson scored 14 of his 18 in the second half for the Bison (5-6, 2-0 Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference). Sam Brand had 15 points for the Bears (3-10, 1-2).