George Mason on Sunday recovered from two forgettable visits to Richmond — double-digit setbacks four days apart that cost it first place in the Atlantic 10 — with a performance that required balance and composure against a streaky team on the upswing.
Setting aside those defeats at Virginia Commonwealth and Richmond, the Patriots received considerable contributions from several players and tightened their defense during a tense finish to defeat La Salle, 84-76, at EagleBank Arena.
The victory ended the team’s first losing streak since November and lifted the Patriots (14-10, 8-3) into a third-place tie with Dayton, a half-game behind Davidson and VCU.
“After the two games,” sophomore guard Javon Greene said, “we were down a little bit, but we just [had to] forget it and move on to the next game.”
Greene made the biggest move, scoring a career-high 21 points and adding seven rebounds and four steals. Jarred Reuter (16 points), Otis Livingston II (14 points, five assists) and Justin Kier (13 points, eight rebounds) were also in stride as the Patriots shot 50.9 percent from the field and made 21 of 24 free throws.
Their resolve, though, was tested near the end. After the Patriots’ lead was trimmed to two with 1:50 left, Kier found Jordan Miller, who cut to the basket for a layup. The Explorers (7-15, 5-5) did not score again.
“That’s the kind of poise and playing for each other that we need,” Mason Coach Dave Paulsen said, “and maybe wasn’t there as much as we’d like the last two games.”
That sort of unselfishness was fitting: On Sunday, Livingston, the fourth-leading scorer in program history, became the first Mason player to record 100 assists in each of his four seasons.
“I just want to thank my teammates for making shots,” he deadpanned.
Kier, the team’s leading scorer, had a refreshing game after duds in the previous two defeats. He did not attempt a shot in the first half — from the field or the free throw line — but ended up making 5 of 9 from the field.
The collective effort offset five players scoring in double figures for the Explorers, led by Pookie Powell, who finished with 18 points, six assists and three steals. Saul Phiri made five three-pointers on his way to 17 points.
The defeat ended a four-game winning streak for La Salle, which began the season with 10 consecutive defeats, won three in a row and then lost four straight before its recent resurgence.
The Explorers shot better than 50 percent much of the game and finished at 49.1 percent. They hit 11 three-pointers, including four in a four-minute stretch midway through the second half. In the final six minutes, though, they shot 2 for 11.
“What I liked,” Paulsen said, “was we really buckled down and really played at a high rate defensively. . . . We are still very much a work in progress defensively. We got more head room to really become outstanding defensively.”
The Patriots raced to a nine-point lead in the first half, but long-range shooting and drives to the basket left the Explorers ahead 39-37 at halftime. In the second half, each time Mason began to create separation, the Explorers answered. Two baskets from Livingston stretched Mason’s lead to 78-71 with three minutes left, but La Salle tightened the gap again.
The Patriots made their final eight free throw attempts, including two by Greg Calixte, who entered shooting 31.4 percent from the line.
“We just stayed poised; we didn’t get rattled,” Livingston said. “We had complete confidence that we could win the game if we just do what we’re supposed to do. It gives us a lot of confidence going forward.”