With George Mason trailing by 15 points in the second half, Coach Dave Paulsen and his assistants urged guard Justin Kier to assert himself rather than deferring to teammates.
The gentle prodding nearly produced an improbable comeback against visiting Davidson when Kier scored 15 of his game-high 26 points over the final 13:30. The Wildcats ultimately held on for a 61-56 triumph on Wednesday night at EagleBank Arena.
Patriots guard Javon Greene had a chance to tie with four seconds left but missed a contested three-pointer. Kellan Grady collected the rebound for Davidson and made a pair of free throws for the final margin.
“This is a team that’s going to give nightmares to people in the Atlantic 10,” Wildcats Coach Bob McKillop said of George Mason, which used an 18-4 run to draw within 48-47 with 7:31 left in the second half.
But KiShawn Pritchett made two free throws for the Wildcats, and Carter Collins followed with a layup with 5:27 to play. The closest George Mason came the rest of the way was 56-54 with 23 seconds left on Greene’s three-pointer, but the Wildcats closed by making 5 of 6 foul shots.
Among the deficiencies that sent the Patriots to their first loss in the Atlantic 10 were a season-low 2 for 20 (10 percent) from three-point range and 15 turnovers. George Mason (8-8, 2-1) also shot 32 percent in losing for the second time in six games.
But George Mason turned in one of its better defensive performances of the season that featured limiting Grady, the Wildcats’ leading scorer, to 17 points on 7-for-18 shooting, including just 1 for 9 on three-pointers. Davidson made just 4 of 29 (13.8 percent) from beyond the arc.
“Obviously we really struggled offensively, but I thought we defended exceptionally well,” Paulsen said. “To hold a team like Davidson to 61 points and 36 percent shooting and 4 for 29 from the three, it was a phenomenal effort.
“In terms of growth, when we were down 15 at one point, we called [a] timeout, and I think even in November, early December, it would have gone from 15 to 25. We really battled back.”
Guard Jon Axel Gudmundsson chipped in 13 points, five assists and five steals for Davidson (11-4, 2-0), among the favorites to contend for the Atlantic 10 regular season title. The Wildcats finished 13.5 points below their scoring average, extending an impressive defensive stretch for the Patriots.
In its previous five games before Wednesday, George Mason had limited its opponents to an average of 57.6 points and 36.2 percent shooting.
“A lot of it had to do with energy,” McKillop said. “A lot had to do with they’re in attack mode and running through a lot of ball screens. We’re in attack mode, running through a lot of screens, and I think both teams just, we just got worn out by the pace and not just the pace but the style of play.”
The Patriots, however, regained their footing for a second-half rally behind Kier, who sank a three-pointer with 12:22 to play to pull George Mason within 44-32. It was the first made three-pointer for the Patriots after they had missed their first 13.
George Mason entered the game shooting nearly 35 percent from beyond the arc, ranking second in the Atlantic 10.
Kier added eight more points over the next four minutes, with his final basket in that stretch coming off his steal at midcourt. The junior who has scored at least 12 points in nine straight games also finished with 12 rebounds for his third consecutive double double and fifth this season.
Other than Kier, who went 13 for 14 from the free throw line, no George Mason player scored more than seven points or gathered more than eight rebounds.
“I was just trying to bring energy,” Kier said. “With us down 15, we were kind of down on ourselves, and some of the assistants and Coach [Paulsen] just told me to lead and bring energy. I try to do that to fuel a fire for everybody else, and we made a good run. Just a few couple things that [we] can fix and come out with a win.”