By Eric Prisbell
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, February 20, 2011; 12:13 AM
CEDAR FALLS, IOWA - George Mason Coach Jim Larranaga spent Thursday's team meeting comparing each Northern Iowa starter to an all-Colonial Athletic Association player. His players doubted him, even saying, "C'mon Coach, they are an all-CAA squad?"
"Offensively, they are," Larranaga insisted. "They can shoot like those guys. I am just telling ya."
By halftime of Saturday's BracketBuster game - after the Panthers had made eight three-pointers - George Mason players needed no further convincing, telling Larranaga, "Man, they are those guys!"
After tinkering with personnel matchups and tightening up defensively, the Patriots erased what would become a 10-point deficit to beat Northern Iowa, 77-71, extending their school-record and national-best winning streak to 13 games.
"February 19," Larranaga said, "it feels like March already."
The two programs that were on display at McLeod Center own coveted spots in NCAA tournament lore, each having authored seismic upsets that will be rehashed and replayed for years to come. And five years after George Mason's historic march to the Final Four, the Patriots are positioning themselves once again for a tournament run, only this time few will be calling them a postseason darling.
In 2006, they earned a No. 11 seed, the best in school history. They could earn a single-digit seed this season, barring a late-season slump. They won't be anyone's Cinderella, and they demonstrated Saturday why they could be a dangerous team next month.
Larranaga believes the nationally televised game will give NCAA tournament selection committee members perhaps the only chance to get a mental snapshot of his team. What the Patriots offered was a glimpse of how they have won all year - with a collective effort.
In a rare tight game - the Patriots (23-5) had won all but one game during the winning streak by double digits - several players made key plays throughout a taught, emotionally charged contest between two well-respected programs.
There was Cam Long - the team's leading scorer who was held to three points much of the game because of few open looks - sinking a critical three-pointer from the corner to give the Patriots a four-point lead with 1 minute 20 seconds to play.
There was Andre Cornelius, scoring 11 of his team-high 24 points in the game's first nine minutes and appearing to throw up on the court in the final minutes as he fought to finish the game.
There was Ryan Pearson scoring 21 points, grabbing a career-high 15 rebounds and making all 13 of his free throw attempts. And there was Luke Hancock making a difficult runner with two minutes to play to give George Mason a four-point advantage.
"Like Coach said, it was a prize fight, they came out swinging, and we could not just give in," Pearson said. "We knew they were a great team. The way Coach L compared them to the CAA guys, he was on the money with all of them. And we just had to keep fighting for every inch."
Cornelius displayed a hot shooting touch early, silencing the crowd with his third three-pointer of the first half to cap an 11-0 run that gave Mason an eight-point lead.
The problem was that UNI (19-10) was even hotter from the floor and all five starters could shoot.
One of the constants during George Mason's season has been its defense; it had held teams to 38.5 percent shooting in victories. But the Panthers shot 58.3 percent in the first half.
The Panthers, who stunned top-seeded Kansas in the second round of last season's NCAA tournament, began the second half with two of their 13 three-pointers to extend their lead to 10. But Larranaga tinkered with personnel - 6-foot-9 Mike Morrison played just four minutes in the second half so quicker defenders could guard Northern Iowa's team of shooters.
UNI shot just 31 percent in the second half.
The Patriots struggled handling UNI's press in the game's final minute, but they made enough free throws to win.
The game had all the trappings of a hostile environment. An announced crowd of 6,580 rocked the arena with a frenetic dance called "The Interlude." Grown men in button-down shirts mimicked a robot. And a scantily clad man painted head to toe jumped around behind the basket to distract a Mason free throw shooter.
But by game's end, there were the Patriots chest-bumping at midcourt, celebrating a difficult come-from-behind victory to keep them surging toward March.