Patriots Find Themselves at a Loss

Bucknell's Donald Brown, left, and Chris McNaughton smother George Mason's Folarin Campbell during the first half of their BB&T Classic matchup at Verizon Center. (AP)
Bucknell's Donald Brown, left, and Chris McNaughton smother George Mason's Folarin Campbell during the first half of their BB&T Classic matchup at Verizon Center. (AP)
By Steven Goff
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, December 4, 2006

If, by chance, George Mason does not end up winning the Colonial Athletic Association title, the folks at the NCAA are going to take a hard look at the Patriots' key nonconference games. They are going to see how the Patriots fared against Wichita State and Creighton the first two weeks of the season, and Bucknell, Duke and Mississippi State this month.

And what they will find, to this point anyway, are nothing but losses.

Yesterday the Patriots dropped their third consecutive important game outside the CAA, a deceptively close 60-57 decision to Bucknell in the opener of the BB&T Classic at Verizon Center.

After falling behind by 16 points to a team that had played at home 24 hours earlier, George Mason (3-3) rallied within three in the final minute but was never in position to tie the score.

"We looked very passive to begin the game, both offensively and defensively," Coach Jim Larranaga said. "It put us in a hole and it took us the whole game to dig ourselves out."

Junior guard Folarin Campbell scored 20 points and reserve guard Dre Smith added 11, all in the final 10-plus minutes, but the front court continued to be a problem for the Patriots. Will Thomas had to fend for himself, struggling to contribute eight points and five rebounds as Jesus Urbina and Darryl Monroe provided little support.

Larranaga's most effective combination was with four guards joining Thomas in the second half. The lack of an inside presence pushed the Patriots far from the basket and left them with an imbalanced half-court offense.

"We settled for a lot of perimeter shots early, which is exactly opposite of what we want to do," Larranaga said. "We clearly have to develop another inside guy because Will Thomas can't just carry the load himself all the time. He's the only guy we have playing near the basket. . . . We need some other guys to step in that direction."

It was a disappointing return to downtown Washington for the Patriots, who were making their first appearance there since beating Wichita State and Connecticut in the NCAA tournament regionals last spring to reach the Final Four. Yesterday they went scoreless for more than five minutes on two separate occasions in the first half and, with Thomas bottled up in the lane, they couldn't find an outside shooting rhythm.

Smith made 3 of 4 three-pointers late, but leading scorer John Vaughan (six points) missed all seven of his long-range shots and Campbell went 1 for 5 until he made a buzzer-beater for the final margin.

"We just didn't come out and play," senior guard Gabe Norwood said.

Which was a mystery considering the Patriots had five days to prepare while the Bison (3-5) arrived by bus late Saturday night after losing to Northern Iowa that afternoon. Bucknell, the Patriot League favorite, had agreed to play in the high-profile BB&T even though it was locked into the Northern Iowa game.

The Bison, though, showed no visible fatigue. They shot 57 percent in the first half, made 8 of 16 three-pointers overall and converted 7 of 9 free throws in the final 41 seconds to keep the Patriots at bay.

"If I felt it, I felt it in the second half. My legs started to go on me a little bit," said Donald Brown, who had 16 points, made all six field goal attempts, and added nine rebounds. "But it's really hard to take a bus ride right after a tough game and sit on the bus and then go to the hotel without a shoot-around the next day to prepare for the team."

Nonetheless, the Bison took the lead for good at the 13 minute 41 second mark and Justin Castleberry's floater provided a 33-17 lead. The Patriots got a three-pointer from Jordan Carter just before the break and started the second half with a 7-2 run, but were unable to sustain the momentum.

"We're still trying to find our identity. It's going to come," said Campbell, whose team will play at Radford on Wednesday before facing Duke on Saturday. "We're still in the learning process. These losses just make us a better team."

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