The stretch run began for George Mason last night in the minutes after its 76-54 victory over Towson at Patriot Center. The Patriots, in a five-way tie for second place in the Colonial Athletic Association, have won three straight and finally have a healthy roster in place.

Mark Davis scored 21 points to lead George Mason, and Jon Larranaga added 14 points and Jesse Young 13.

Towson, which has lost 12 of its past 13 games, struggled early and did not have enough to mount a serious challenge in the second half, shooting 40 percent and turning the ball over 20 times.

"Our guys were a little gun-shy about playing them the first time, because they're very aggressive about what they do," Towson Coach Michael Hunt said. "Tonight it was a street fight. In the first half, they punched us in the mouth and took our lunch money. In the second half, we went and got it back."

The relative tightness of the game -- at least compared to the teams' last meeting, a 90-56 George Mason victory on Jan. 11 -- was both a sign of the freshman-heavy Tigers' progress and the difficulties the Patriots could face in the coming weeks.

This week is one of the biggest in George Mason's season, with road games at Delaware on Wednesday and Virginia Commonwealth on Saturday.

"We've played most of the top teams at home -- Wilmington, Delaware, Drexel," George Mason Coach Jim Larranaga said. "We were able to beat them at home. To really prove yourself, you have to beat them on the road."

Last night's games opened the second half of the CAA season, and the top of the standings is just as packed as two weeks ago. The victory moved George Mason (11-8, 6-4) into a tie with Drexel, Delaware, Virginia Commonwealth and Old Dominion, all 11/2 games behind North Carolina Wilmington.

What's more, Raoul Heinen, the last of the four Patriots to miss significant time, rejoined the starting lineup, looking all but recovered from his thumb injury.

"It doesn't really surprise me much," Jon Larranaga said of the tight standings. "Like us, a lot of teams have had injuries. It's been an up-and-down year in the conference. This is when the better teams step up, the second half of conference season and the great teams really show what they can do."

George Mason took a 13-3 lead to open the game and led 34-18 at halftime. Six straight points by Jesse Young gave the Patriots a 40-23 lead early in the second half, but Towson (4-15, 1-9) closed within 48-39 on Cilk McSweeney's three-pointer with 11 minutes 31 seconds remaining. After a timeout, Larranaga's layup restored order for the Patriots, who led by 11 or more after that.

* PROVIDENCE 89, VA. TECH 58: The Hokies missed all 10 three-point attempts and had just six players score in the Big East loss in Providence, R.I.

Virginia Tech (8-11, 1-5) shot 34 percent from the floor and 56 percent (18 of 32) from the free throw line. Bryant Matthews and Terry Taylor scored 18 points apiece. Providence is 10-8, 3-4.

* COPPIN STATE 68, HOWARD 60: Ron Williamson's 17 points weren't enough for the visiting Bison (5-13, 3-6 Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference) to overcome double-digit scoring from four Eagles.

Larry Tucker led Coppin State (6-12, 6-3) with 18 points, and teammates Deke Thompson (16 points), Raheem Scott (11) and Darron Bradley (10) also contributed.

Kyle Williams scored 11 points and had four steals for the Bison.

Providence's Rob Sanders battles Virginia Tech's Deonte Smith, left, and Bryant Matthews for loose ball during the Friars' 89-58 Big East victory.