By Steven Goff
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, January 24, 2010; D09
TOWSON, MD. -- George Mason reached the midway point of the Colonial Athletic Association calendar Saturday with an 80-71 victory over Towson to retain a stake of first place, an almost unfathomable feat given the fact that the Patriots have one of the youngest rosters in the nation and have experienced radical swings of maturity.
On this afternoon, after relinquishing a nine-point lead, they exhibited their cool in the final 3 1/2 minutes and closed the game on a 15-5 run that included consecutive three-pointers by Cam Long and two crucial baskets by Isaiah Tate.
The reward was a fifth straight victory, a seventh in the past eight games that extended their winning streak over the Tigers to 16.
"We are at the halfway point of the conference race, and as I tell the players all the time during a game, nothing is won at halftime," George Mason Coach Jim Larranaga said. "You've got to play the second half, and you have got to play the second half even better than you did the first, and so in the conference race, we have got to do the same."
To this juncture, Larranaga has few complaints, especially during this eight-day stretch in which the Patriots (13-7, 8-1) won three road games. Long, a junior guard, was the catalyst again Saturday, making five three-pointers and finishing with 21 points, 6 rebounds and 3 assists.
In those three games, he averaged 24 points and made 22 of 31 field goals and 11 of 17 three-pointers.
"My teammates are yelling 'shoot!' when they throw me the ball because they know I am making shots and capable of making my three-pointers," Long said. "I am looking for them and they are trying to find me. It all comes with the confidence, and I just let it go."
His biggest shot came with 3 minutes 26 seconds remaining, a three-pointer that halted an 11-1 run by the Tigers (4-15, 1-8) and provided a 68-66 lead. On the next possession, Long struck from almost the same spot.
After Towson trimmed the margin to three, Tate tipped in Andre Cornelius's miss and followed with his third three-pointer for a 76-68 advantage with about a minute to go. Tate scored all of his career-high 13 points in the second half and also had six rebounds.
Larranaga has leaned on his bench this season, but the starters were the key to the latest victory as sophomore forwards Mike Morrison and Ryan Pearson combined for 25 points and 21 rebounds and Cornelius, also a sophomore, added 10 points.
Jarrel Smith had 23 points for the Tigers, who were without junior forward Robert Nwankwo, the CAA leader in rebounding, blocked shots and field goal percentage, because of a shoulder injury.
Josh Thornton, Towson's leading scorer, didn't start because he arrived late to the arena; he played just 16 minutes and had six points. Although the teams are heading in opposite directions, the Patriots labored. Despite holding Towson to 26.5 percent shooting in the first half, George Mason managed just a 35-29 lead at intermission.
Interior defending and rebounding were constant problems for the Patriots, who also struggled to establish an inside game against Towson's zone.
The answer was to shoot over it, which the Patriots did with devastating efficiency in the second half: 7 of 15 three-pointers. Cornelius's entry passing to Morrison and Tate's assist on Morrison's dunk provided a 64-55 lead, but the Tigers answered with their best stretch, capped by a three-pointer by RaShawn Polk and a bank shot by Calvin Lee (15 points, 13 rebounds).
Long struck back with a pair of three-pointers and the Patriots limited the Tigers to one field goal in the last 3 ½ minutes.
"When those runs against us happen, the main thing we need to do is get our composure," Long said. "If we have the composure, we're going to be all right."