George Mason, which has been struggling to get some recognition, earned a heap of it last night. Shooting 60 percent from the floor, the Patriots thrashed American University, 95-83, in the schools' first-ever meeting before an enthusiastic crowd of 2,800 at Fairfax.
Sophomore guard Carlos Yates, honored as Sports Illustrated's player of the week, found that honor to be without jinx as he collected 32 points, for his sixth 30-point game of the season, and had a game-high 11 rebounds.
For once, Yates had help. Freshman forward Rob Rose made nine of 11 shots and had 19 points. Junior guard John Niehoff, who brought the ball up with minimal difficulty against the Eagles' trap, scored 18 points, making 10 of 11 free throws.
"Beating American University will make a mark for us in the city," Yates said. "It will show everybody in the area we're a good team. This was a very big game, particularly since we'd lost three conference games by one or two points."
"It was a big win, a big win," said Athletic Director Jack Kvancz.
Coach Joe Harrington first denied it was his biggest victory in three seasons at George Mason, then admitted he could not recall a bigger one.
"Out team has been playing better every time out the last month," Harrington said. "It's obvious what Carlos Yates does for our team, but we've stressed that we need good shots from the other players. Tonight, Rob Rose and John Niehoff got them for us."
The Patriots (10-6) started slowly and Yates placed part of the blame on a lopsided basketball, which quickly was replaced. Then the Eagles' defense created five straight turnovers as American took an 8-6 lead.
At this point, Niehoff jumped off the bench and George Mason was charged with only nine more turnovers the rest of the night.
When American (9-7) crept in front, 22-21, on two baskets by 29-point scorer Ed Sloane and a layup by Fernando Aunon, the Patriots rebounded with a 14-2 run that put them ahead to stay. Yates had three baskets in 1 1/2 minutes to lead the rally.
George Mason was 11 up at the half after making 21 of 31 shots, with Rose sinking all six of his and Yates seven of nine. AU did not quit, however, and closed to 52-50 on what amounted to a five-point play.
Juan Jones' slam dunk brought the Eagles within five and Harrington, who moments before had protested in vain that Yates was hacked, leaped up to give a traveling signal. He was called for a technical foul that cost George Mason possession.
Mark Nickens made one of two free throws, then Sloane laid in a two-pointer before the Patriots got the ball back and Yates took over.
First, he drove the baseline to score. Then he stole Jones' pass and made it 56-50. A free throw by Rose and Niehoff's jumper boosted the margin to nine points and AU never came closer than seven the rest of the way, as the game degenerated into a free throw contest.
"I felt like crawling under a chair when I got the technical," Harrington said. "Thank goodness, it didn't turn out to be crucial. The referee said I embarrassed him with the traveling signal. I was the one who was embarrassed.
"Our guys deserve all the credit for this one. They didn't back off a crack when AU came back after I got the technical. They played hard defense and there was a better shot selection by every player. They did a good job beating AU's half-court, man-to-man defense, too. It was a big win."