George Mason opens the season with home victory over Liberty Flames

By Steven Goff
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, November 14, 2009

George Mason's season opener Friday night was everything that Coach Jim Larranaga hoped for, everything he feared and, with freshmen and sophomores shuttling on and off the court all evening and his leader sidelined with leg cramps in the second half, it was about what he expected.

The 76-72 victory over Liberty before 6,014 at Patriot Center was punctuated by wild swings of both exhilarating and sloppy basketball. A 19-point lead early in the second half slipped to three with 2 1/2 minutes left before the Patriots rediscovered their half-court offense, freshman Luke Hancock beat the shot clock with an off-balance basket and sophomore Andre Cornelius converted critical free throws.

"We are a very interesting team, aren't we?" Larranaga said. "We can play very well for a while [but] there are always going to be periods where that, even if there's a little bit of a letdown," the Patriots are going to be in trouble.

Cornelius, a 5-foot-10 guard who averaged 5.5 points last season, led four players in double-figure scoring with 17 points and inherited the ballhandling and leadership role when junior guard Cam Long, the team's point guard and top returning scorer, left with 18 minutes left. With ice packs on both quadriceps, Long did not return from an ailment that Larranaga said has bothered him for a couple of years.

Long's absence disrupted the offense, which managed just seven field goals the rest of the game. The Patriots' lead was 53-34 with 14 1/2 minutes left and 57-39 with 12 minutes to go before the Flames turned to senior guard Kyle Ohman to chip away at the deficit.

Carter McMasters's free throws cut it to 68-65 before Cornelius slipped a pass to Louis Birdsong for a layup. After each team made a free throw, Hancock took the initiative and made a difficult shot in the lane for a 73-66 lead with 31 seconds remaining.

"That was pretty special for a freshman," Larranaga said of Hancock, a 6-5 swingman from Roanoke who finished with 11 points, 4 rebounds and 2 assists.

"I was definitely nervous to start out," said Hancock, who played three positions during his 23 minutes. "Everyone telling me to calm down made me relax a little bit and get in a groove."

Ohman had 23 points for the Flames, who are adjusting to the departure of coach Ritchie McKay (now a Virginia assistant) and guard Seth Curry (now at Duke after averaging 20.2 points as a freshman).

With 11 freshmen and sophomores, the Patriots were predictably erratic throughout the game. Hancock had an immediate impact, helping them turn a six-point deficit into a six-point lead. After banking in a three-pointer -- the second of six in the half by the team -- he extended his arms incredulously.

The Patriots mixed inside and outside scoring and Cornelius made three three-pointers in the last eight minutes of the half to build a 40-27 advantage.

The torrid three-point shooting continued after the break as Cornelius and Birdsong connected. In a six-minute span, the Patriots forced five turnovers and Mike Morrison (12 points, 7 rebounds) had two emphatic blocks as the lead ballooned to 19.

But Long's absence, the Patriots' sputtering offense and the Flames' efficiency tightened things before George Mason secured its 28th victory in the past 29 home games.

"We had good intensity, but in the second half, we let down on defense a little bit," Cornelius said. "They were coming back, so we had to play hard. We slacked off and had to pick it up again. The defense is going to be our main factor."

Patriots notes: Jonathan Arledge, a 6-9, 230-pound forward at KIMA High School in the District, signed a national letter-of-intent to enroll next year. He averaged 11.9 points, 11 rebounds and 2 blocks last season. His coach, Levet Brown, said Arledge is expected to grow to 6-11. . . . The Patriots will host Dartmouth at 4 p.m. Sunday.

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