PISCATAWAY, N.J., NOV. 20 -- This was not what Rick Barnes had in mind.
George Mason's rookie basketball coach made his debut tonight in the first round of the Big Apple NIT with dreams of an upset over a Big East team that would draw his school some national attention.
Instead, Seton Hall grabbed the early season spotlight, blitzing the Patriots, 26-9, during one late stretch before walking away with an 85-63 victory before 2,400 in the Rutgers Athletic Center.
"Our kids are just bigger and stronger than their kids," said Seton Hall Coach P.J. Carlesimo. "In the first half we didn't take advantage of that very well. In the second half, we did."
Each team opened the season without a key player. George Mason was without senior point guard Amp Davis, left home because of academic troubles. Seton Hall played without Mark Bryant, its leading rebounder and second-leading scorer last season. Bryant was suspended for one game by the NCAA because he allowed an agent to pay transportation and lodging for him during a meeting with that agent.
As good as Bryant is, the Patriots probably suffered more without Davis, who lost 30 pounds during the offseason to become the point guard Barnes wants. The two men who replaced Davis, Steve Smith and Darin Satterwaithe, shot a combined two for nine from the field and turned the ball over eight times. In all, George Mason turned the ball over 22 times and never looked comfortable on offense.
The Patriots got 46 of their points from juniors Earl Moore (24) and Kenny Sanders. Sanders had 17 of his points in the first half, bringing his team back into the game after the Pirates took a 9-0 lead. But in the second half, with Seton Hall fronting him, Sanders struggled and so did his team, which finished the game shooting just 37 percent from the field.
"We just never got into the kind of offense we like to run," Barnes said. "We got off to a bad start, which was understandable because we were tight. But after that, we got back in the game and I thought we could stay with them. But our shot selection really hurt us in the second half."
Carlesimo played 13 men before the game was over and had four players in double figures, led by Daryll Walker with 20 points, Martin Salley with 18 and James Major with 15. The fourth man in double figures was sophomore reserve Nick Katsikis, who hit his first four shots, three of them three-pointers, the last to give the Pirates a 41-30 lead at the halftime buzzer.
That deficit was particularly discouraging for the Patriots considering the way they got back into the game after their horrendous start. Barnes had to call time out 77 seconds after the tipoff to calm his rattled team down. He did just that and when Moore hit two free throws with 4:32 left, George Mason led by 26-25. As it turned out, that was the Patriots' only lead of the game.
"After the way we started, we just got sloppy," said Major. "We knew they would make some kind of run, but we also knew that if we kept putting the ball inside, sooner or later we would wear them down."
Smith's three-pointer had brought George Mason back to within 56-50 with 12 minutes left. Carlesimo called time at that stage and, after Mason had one chance to cut the lead to four, Katsikis hit two straight three-pointers to push the margin to 12. It just built from there.
"They did a really good job to get back into the game," Carlesimo said. " . . . I think, finally, towards the end, we did what we wanted to do -- go inside -- and got some baskets."
Carlesimo was able to get some minutes for his 5-foot-3 junior college miniguard, Leland (Pookey) Wigington and, although he didn't score, Wigington delighted the crowd with several slick passes, finishing with six assists in 15 minutes.
For the Patriots, there was no such joy. They had pointed to this game ever since Barnes took over this spring and the decisiveness of the defeat shocked them.
"To work so hard and get beat by so many points is pathetic," Sanders said. "The first half we hung in there, but in the second I couldn't get the ball where I wanted to and our whole offense stopped executing. All I can say is that I hope we learn from this."
What the Patriots learned tonight is that the Big East's reputation is well-deserved. Seton Hall is a good, tough, experienced team. And they learned that there is a long season -- and a lot of work -- ahead.