By Steven Goff
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, November 12, 2006
CLEVELAND, Nov. 11 -- Seven months later, the setting was not a sold-out dome but a downtown arena barely one-third full. There was no national TV coverage, just a couple of local camera crews. The opponent was not from an elite conference, only a forgotten program trying to reverse five consecutive losing campaigns.
George Mason's season opener Saturday bore no resemblance to the last time the Patriots played a game that mattered, and for much of the afternoon, their dreamy run to the Final Four seemed so distant both in atmosphere and performance.
But after falling behind Cleveland State by 16 points, the Patriots turned to a pair of veterans, a brawny transfer, a renewed guard and a disruptive zone defense to pull away for a 79-74 victory before 3,004 at Goodman Arena.
"What we asked them to do is to never forget that -- they'll always have those memories -- but that's of last year," Coach Jim Larranaga said. "This is a new season, a new team. This team has to develop its own identity."
Although the Patriots' identity will center around their two returning starters, Will Thomas and Folarin Campbell, a supporting cast has begun to emerge.
Thomas had a career-high 25 points and added 10 rebounds and five assists, while Campbell overcame a miserable first half to contribute 14 points.
Larranaga, though, was encouraged by the play of guard John Vaughn, who, after sitting out a year with a serious knee injury, scored 18 points on 7-of-11 shooting, and junior college transfer Darryl Monroe, a 6-foot-7, 260-pound forward who instigated the second-half comeback and finished with 12 points on 6-of-7 shooting.
The Patriots shot 73 percent after halftime (19 of 26).
"It was the first half, but you've got to have a sense of urgency the whole game," Thomas said of the large deficit to a team picked to finish last in the Horizon League. "The second half, we calmed down and ran our stuff."
The Patriots were out of sorts at the start. They fell behind 6-0, committed five of their 11 first-half turnovers in the first three minutes and, after going ahead 9-8, did not lead again until 4 minutes 48 seconds remained in the game.
Keyed by Joe Davis's three three-pointers and J'Nathan Bullock's inside presence, the Vikings built a 39-23 lead -- the Patriots' biggest deficit since a 17-point margin at Virginia Commonwealth last February.
George Mason, though, ended the half with a 9-2 run to make it 41-32, then picked up where it left off by working the ball to Monroe and Thomas for easy baskets.
The Patriots made 11 of their first 12 attempts of the half, and although the Vikings maintained the lead, Mason seemed comfortable with the game's direction.
"With the players we have, I knew we were going to fight back and come back for the win," Monroe said. "All we had to do was calm down."
The Patriots went ahead to stay on Jordan Carter's three-pointer with 4:42 left -- their fourth long-range shot in four minutes -- and used their 2-3 zone to hold the Vikings to one field goal over three-plus minutes. Five of six free throws in the last 20 seconds sealed it.
"I told the team after the game, 'This is exactly what we needed,' " Larranaga said. "You need outside competition, you need to test yourself, because you're facing yourself every day in practice."
With this sluggish performance out of the way, the Patriots can now turn to their home opener next Saturday against Wichita State and a pregame celebration sure to rekindle memories of last season's magical ride.
The challenge for the players will be to look ahead, not back.
"We're not last year's team," Monroe said. "We're trying to have our own identity. Today was the first step."
Patriots Notes: After their game, the Patriots attended the Cavaliers-Celtics matchup at nearby Quicken Loans Arena. . . . About 1,500 tickets remain available to the general public for the home opener.