NEW YORK — The way Dave Paulsen sees it, navigating a conference basketball tournament requires a team to, at least once, prevail in the face of a sordid performance and fear of early elimination against an inspired opposition.
Paulsen’s George Mason Patriots, paired with the same foe they had dismissed with minimal resistance five days earlier, were put to just such a test Thursday in their first game at the Atlantic 10 shindig at Barclays Center.
The 61-57 victory against undermanned, overmatched George Washington was a laborious affair, one that became increasingly dangerous as time grew short and threatened to prematurely dismiss the Patriots before any of the other contenders had taken the court over this five-day event.
“You get into conference tournament play, and you’ve got to win a game like that — a grind-it-out game where maybe we weren’t as sharp offensively as we needed to be,” Paulsen said after his fifth-seeded team (18-14) earned a quarterfinal berth against No. 4 St. Bonaventure (16-15) at 2:30 p.m. Friday.
The Patriots shot 33.3 percent in the second half and trailed by five with about 5½ minutes left. But when all else failed, they increased their defensive effectiveness, began to find their way on offense and scored seven consecutive points to take the lead for good.
Otis Livingston II’s three-pointer with 2:50 remaining wiped out GW’s last advantage. Justin Kier made a key basket. Greg Calixte provided a blocked shot. And after the Colonials (9-24) failed to rebound a missed free throw by the Patriots with 14 seconds left, Paulsen’s crew was finally in the clear.
Through it all, Paulsen said his message was, “Okay, you’re not playing great offensively, still defend, show toughness and make the energy plays.”
No one made more plays, of any kind, than Kier, a junior guard who scored 26 points on 10-for-14 shooting, made all five free throw tries and added eight rebounds and five assists. He posted 15 points in the first half, missing once in eight attempts.
Livingston, performing a few miles from his New Jersey home, made three three-pointers and scored 12 points but shot 4 for 16 — consistent with the entire team, aside from Kier.
The Patriots swept all three meetings against the 12th-seeded Colonials and stretched their winning streak in the series to four.
D.J. Williams, GW’s leading scorer averaging 13.7 points, did not play because of a head injury suffered during the first-round victory over No. 13 Massachusetts.
Armel Potter scored 12 for the senior-less Colonials, who lost 10 of their final 12, both victories coming against U-Mass. It’s the most defeats for the program since it finished 1-27 in 1988-89.
To their credit, the Colonials played hard and with heart. They eliminated an eight-point deficit to draw even at intermission and took charge midway through the second half before George Mason’s resurgence.
"It would have been easy to cash in the chips and say, ‘You know what, let’s lay down,’ " GW Coach Maurice Joseph said of Williams’s absence. “We are a resilient group, and I am proud of my guys.”
Joseph believed a low-scoring game would work to his team’s benefit, but the Colonials shot 29 percent in the second half and 35 percent overall. Down the stretch, they shot 1 for 10 with a turnover before Terry Nolan Jr. made a three-pointer with 2.8 seconds left.
Despite the momentum swing, the Colonials had a good chance to win or force overtime. After Maceo Jack missed a potential tying three-pointer, Livingston went to the free throw line with 14 seconds left. He missed but no one secured the rebound. With the ball loose in the lane, George Mason’s Javon Greene grabbed it. His two free throws all but sealed the outcome.
Greene’s alert play drew praise from Paulsen, who needed to raise his struggling sophomore’s spirits earlier.
“Javon had that ashen look on his face,” the coach said of Greene (1-for-4 shooting, three fouls). “I’m like: ‘You have to get it together. This is where you have to have toughness.’ "
Greene’s late-game defense, crucial rebound and key free throws were, Paulsen said, “the mark of a team that we want to be in terms of toughness.”
Early in the game, the Patriots seemed as if they would sail into intermission with a comfortable lead and be in position to put away the game in the second half. But GW did not get discouraged, closing on a 10-2 run to pull even at intermission.
Into the second half, GW’s zone gave fits. The Patriots’ only field goal for almost six minutes to start the half was Jamal Hartwell II’s three-pointer in transition.
With confidence growing, GW attacked the lane at every opportunity and, when necessary, kicked the ball out for three-pointers. Justin Mazzulla’s three provided a 52-47 lead with 6:16 to go.
Potter said, “We made a lot of right plays.”
Soon, though, the Patriots worked through their issues to earn a date with St. Bonaventure, which has won seven of eight, including a 23-point rout of visiting Mason on Feb. 17. The Patriots won the previous meeting by 15 in Fairfax.
“We might shoot it great; we may not,” Paulsen said. “But if we fight and defend like we did, especially in the second half [against GW], then we are going to have a shot.”
Read more on NCAA basketball: