Youth encourages George Mason in defeat

Ryan Pearson, one of George Mason's sophomore starters, goes over Devin Searcy here, but along with Andre Cornelius shot 2 of 15.
Ryan Pearson, one of George Mason's sophomore starters, goes over Devin Searcy here, but along with Andre Cornelius shot 2 of 15. (Photos By Tracy A. Woodward/the Washington Post)
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By Steven Goff
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, December 10, 2009

Reprinted from yesterday's late editions

Jim Larranaga braced himself for wild performance swings from his young George Mason team this season, immature stretches coupled with heartening moments.

On Tuesday night, the Patriots packed everything into a 56-55 nonconference loss to Atlantic 10 favorite Dayton in front of 5,727 at Patriot Center: an 18-point deficit, 14 1/2 minutes without a field goal, a 13-point uprising, the sudden emergence of another freshman guard and a rousing comeback in the last 30 seconds.

George Mason's fluctuations, particularly on offense, were responsible for ending the program-record home winning streak at 18 and handing the Patriots (4-5) just their second loss in Fairfax in the past 31 games.

Freshman guard Sherrod Wright was the bright spot, making all four field goal attempts and each of his eight free throws for a game-high 17 points. He entered averaging 2.4 points and shooting 14 percent from the field, but scored 13 in the second half, including a three-pointer at the buzzer.

"We have kind of been waiting for a game like this from him," Larranaga said. "One of the things about being a freshman is that you have so much to learn, you have so much going through your mind, it's difficult sometimes to just relax and play. Tonight for the first time he was doing all the things we knew he could do."

The Patriots limited Dayton star Chris Wright to two points, 14 fewer than his average, and the Flyers (6-2) to 25 percent shooting in the second half. They prevented an opponent from scoring 60 points for the second straight outing. They turned a 16-point halftime deficit into a two-point game with almost seven minutes remaining and, after falling behind by seven late, threatened to steal a victory.

Wright's free throws and Andre Cornelius's three-pointer cut the margin to 54-52 with 8.4 seconds left, but Chris Johnson (14 points) all but sealed the outcome by making two free throws.

"Coach has been talking to me a lot to play my game, but to start at the defensive end -- the offense will just come," Wright said. "My teammates put me in good positions, I just made shots and attacked" the basket.

Wright's defensive work helped spark the resurgence after a ghastly first half by George Mason. Between Wright's driving layup at the 14-minute 32-second mark and Mike Morrison's dunk at the intermission buzzer, the Patriots missed 10 consecutive shots without an offensive rebound and had seven turnovers. Dayton's reserves outscored George Mason's entire team (20-19) in forging a 35-19 lead.

"We didn't come out really together as a team," junior guard Cam Long said.

With George Mason trailing 39-21, Louis Birdsong's three-point play triggered the 13-0 run. The Patriots continued to chip away, pulling to 49-46 on Wright's bank shot. But Luke Hancock, who, to this point, has been the most impressive of the seven freshmen, tried to do too much on several possessions, missing a potential game-tying three-pointer and committing two turnovers as the Flyers restored a seven-point lead with 34 seconds to go.

"Luke is a very aggressive player and that's normally a very, very positive thing," Larranaga said. "He's learning and hopefully those kinds of decisions will turn into free throws or layups for us."

In addition to the general inconsistency, sophomore starters Cornelius and Ryan Pearson shot 2 of 15 combined for nine points, the team missed its first nine three-pointers and the Patriots failed to corral a Dayton miss with a four-point deficit and 45 seconds remaining.

"We're still a work in progress offensively," Larranaga said. "We're kind of learning each other. We have two freshman perimeter players [Wright and Hancock] who are coming along nicely, but we need our upperclassmen to give us some numbers."

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