George Mason outruns Virginia Military Institute for victory

By Kathy Orton
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, December 23, 2009

In the past few years, VMI has become known for its high-scoring, up-tempo games. The Keydets are eager to shoot and shoot often, especially from behind the arc. And when playing this team from the Big South Conference, it can be tempting to try to match it three-pointer for three-pointer.

George Mason, however, wasn't about to be lured into that strategy, especially since the Keydets were allowing the Patriots to drive unimpeded to the basket. George Mason took few jump shots in its 89-86 victory over VMI at Patriot Center on Tuesday night, relying instead on high-percentage shots such as layups and dunks and making 56 percent of their field goals.

Before the game, George Mason Coach Jim Larranaga told his team, "we should have a goal of scoring 100 points, that we were not going to slow things down, not play conservatively, attack their pressure for open-court baskets, get to the foul line as much as possible."

For the most part, that's exactly what the Patriots did. But on the rare occasion they wandered outside the arc to shoot, Larranaga gently reminded them of the game plan. In the first half, when Ryan Pearson launched a three-point shot from the left baseline corner that hit the rim and bounced away, Larranaga, while telling him it wasn't a bad shot, reminded him: "We're going to get layups."

And get layups they did. George Mason scored 52 of its points around the basket. Meanwhile, VMI took almost half of its shots from three-point range, making 11 of 32 three-point attempts. Keith Gabriel made six three-pointers and finished with 24 points to lead the Keydets, who average more than 13 threes a game.

"Coming into the game we knew we were a little bit bigger in size," said Pearson, who had 16 points and tied a career high with 13 rebounds. "We knew we wanted to go inside and just get layup after layup. Watching the tape we seen that they don't really protect the basket as well."

George Mason built a 52-45 halftime lead on the strength of contributions from freshman guard Sherrod Wright and junior guard Isaiah Tate. Wright, whose breakout game came against Dayton earlier this month when he scored 17 points and grabbed six rebounds, turned in another solid performance against VMI. Wright thrived in the fast-paced game, scoring 18 of his 24 points in the first half.

"It started on the defensive end, and that got my confidence" going, Wright said. "Now I'm just feeling more confident in myself and I'm just getting into my flow."

Tate was the model of efficiency in the first half, scoring 11 points in 14 minutes. He finished with a career-high 12 points on 4-of-9 shooting.

George Mason briefly held a double-digit lead, going ahead 50-39 late in the first half. But for the most part, this was a see-saw game, featuring 11 ties and 12 lead changes.

After a missed three by VMI's Austin Kenon (22 points), GMU failed to corral the rebound and the ball went out of bounds to the Keydets. Confusion on a defensive assignment allowed Stan Okoye to dunk the ball off the inbounds pass and put VMI ahead, 86-85, with 1 minute 11 seconds to play.

Wright missed a three from the left wing, but Luke Hancock snagged the rebound and made the putback to give GMU back the lead.

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