George Mason vs. Georgia State: Patriots complete regular season with 15th straight win
Sunday, February 27, 2011; 12:35 AM
ATLANTA - A regular season that shattered expectations and reintroduced George Mason to the national college basketball conversation concluded Saturday with a 65-58 victory over Georgia State, the Patriots' 15th consecutive win.
It wasn't a commanding performance like so many during this implausible run, and until the last minute, the outcome remained in doubt.
But with a game-ending 11-4 burst, including more late heroics by senior guard Cam Long, the Patriots (25-5, 16-2 Colonial Athletic Association) extended the nation's longest winning streak and capped the most successful regular season in the program's 44-year history.
"The season has been great, but now the most important season is coming up," junior forward Mike Morrison said. "We can't dwell on [the past]. We've got to move ahead."
Old Dominion, Hofstra and Virginia Commonwealth also earned byes and, overall, six CAA teams won at least 20 games. But only George Mason and ODU carry portfolios worthy of an NCAA tournament at-large berth (should they fail to win the CAA championship and the automatic bid).
The Patriots have put themselves in such a strong position, a loss early in the conference event should only impact their NCAA tournament seeding.
"We're not a great big, strong team. We're not the most athletic team out there," Coach Jim Larranaga said. "But because of the teamwork, we've been able to guard teams pretty well, rebound the ball, and we've become a very good offensive team. It's been a great experience with this group - a lot of fun."
Saturday was not their best work. They shot 41.5 percent and allowed 16 offensive rebounds. They built decent leads but weren't able to pull away.
Junior forward Ryan Pearson, a fearsome inside presence the past month, shot 3 of 10 and, with a nine-point performance, had his streak of 22 consecutive games of double-digit scoring snapped. Except for brief stretches, the Patriots lacked the usual offensive rhythm and defensive dominance.
In the late going, however, they rediscovered their finer points.
"Each time we've come down here, it's come down to the last two minutes," Larranaga said, referencing narrow losses in each of the previous two visits to GSU Sports Arena. "This time, we executed."
Long set a screen, the unimpeded Morrison eyed the rim, and Luke Hancock tossed the alley-oop pass for a thunderous dunk.
The Georgia State defender "was way away from his bench, so his team couldn't yell to him what was about to happen," Morrison said with a grin.
After Ali missed a three-pointer, Long and Georgia State's Josh Micheaux made two free throws apiece for a 60-56 difference and 47 seconds remaining. The Panthers decided not to foul, and when Pearson collected the ball inside, the hosts collapsed, leaving Long open for a three-pointer with 23 seconds left.
It marked the third consecutive close game in which Long had hit a crucial shot from long distance.
"My teammates always come up to me and tell me, 'Hey, it's time for you to pick it up,' " he said. "Being the leader of the team, I have to be able to take that responsibility."
Long scored 16 of his 19 points in the second half, Morrison finished with 14 on 7-of-9 shooting and Vertrail Vaughns added 12, all before halftime.
Morrison, averaging 6.6 points, had his biggest output since November and added a team-high four assists. Vaughns, a freshman guard, made all three three-point attempts to improve to 14 of 22 in the past five games.
With their 25th victory, the Patriots moved within two wins of the program mark set by the 2006 Final Four squad. And with their 16th CAA triumph, they equaled the best conference record since the league expanded the schedule nine years ago.
Said Long, "We enjoyed the regular season but now we have to get our minds focused for the next season - and that's the postseason."