The George Mason men's basketball team struggled with its free throws the first 39 minutes of last night's home opener against Coppin State. But at the game's close, the Patriots showed a remarkable turnaround and were able to defeat last season's Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference champions, 69-66, at Patriot Center in Fairfax.
The Patriots were shooting a paltry 37 percent from the line until the final minute, when Erik Herring made all four of his shots.
"It's an easy shot; no one's guarding you," Patriots Coach Jim Larranaga said of free throws. "At 50 years old, I can still make 85 percent of them. The guys just have to believe that they can make every shot."
Herring made both ends of a one-and-one with 14 seconds left, and then sealed the victory with two more free throws with 2.9 seconds left to give George Mason (1-2) its first win of the season.
In the women's championship game of the Patriot Thanksgiving Classic, last year's Conference USA rookie of the year Deanna Jackson scored a game-high 23 points to lead the University of Alabama-Birmingham Red Blazers to a 69-46 win over the Patriots.
In the men's game, George Mason was up by three with 50 seconds left, when Keith Holden fouled Coppin State forward Larry Tucker, who was attempting a three-pointer. Tucker made the first two free throws, but missed the third after Larranaga called a timeout.
After Herring made two free throws, Eagles guard Jorge Cajigas was fouled to prevent a three-pointer. To have a chance to win, Coppin State needed Cajigas to intentionally miss his second free throw. But he made the shot, giving the Patriots the ball back with a one-point lead and four seconds on the clock. Herring, who also led the Patriots with 17 points, was fouled again with 2.9 seconds left, and again made both of his free throws.
Patriots forward George Evans stole the ensuing inbounds pass by Coppin State (0-4) to seal the victory.
Herring had been in this position before, as a freshman in a game against William & Mary. He went to the free-throw line in the waning seconds to tie the game for Mason, but couldn't convert.
"I figured the more I went to the line, the more confident I would get," Herring said. "I just try to be laid-back and not think about it."
The game featured two evenly matched teams that both made NCAA tournament appearances last season. Neither team led by more than six, and there were 14 lead changes and six ties.
George Mason has had a tough start to a season that began with high expectations. After earning their first berth in the NCAA tournament in 10 years last season, the Patriots are again favored to compete for the Colonial Athletic Association title.
George Mason extended its home winning streak to 11 games dating from last season, but started the season with two straight road losses--an eight-point loss at Toledo and a two-point loss at Delaware.
In the women's game, the 6-foot-2 Jackson earned tournament MVP honors. She also pulled down 13 rebounds to lead a Blazers defense that held George Mason to a season-low 34 percent shooting. George Mason pulled as close as 16-14 in the first half, but UAB ended the half with an 18-1 run to lead 34-17 at the break.
"I thought we were going to be able to defend [Jackson] a little better," said George Mason Coach Debbie Taneyhill. "But she's an 'A' player and she brought her 'A' game tonight."
Trish Hapin, a 6-3 senior center, led George Mason with 16 points, and senior forward Chrissy Todd added 13.
The Patriots (2-2) defeated Mount St. Mary's (2-2) in the first round of the tournament Friday, 65-58, to make it to the final.