The way George Mason’s 2014-15 season has transpired, it takes a hearty soul to spend two hours at Patriot Center. And Saturday’s snowstorm further dampened any lingering enthusiasm to see the struggling Patriots face Atlantic 10 co-leader Rhode Island.
As a result, the players’ chatter and Coach Paul Hewitt’s objections about the officiating were audible in the upper reaches of the green-and-gold-spattered arena during the home team’s familiarly lopsided, 71-56 loss.
Announced attendance (tickets distributed) was 4,740; the actual turnout was a little more than 1,500. Given the circumstances, both on the court and on the streets, it was more than reasonably expected.
In the penultimate home game of the season — and perhaps the second-to-last home date in Hewitt’s four-year tenure — the Patriots (8-18, 3-11 Atlantic 10) fell behind by 16 in the first half and lost for the sixth time in seven games.
With university President Angel Cabrera and Athletic Director Brad Edwards sitting courtside, Mason moved closer to consecutive 20-loss seasons for the first time since 1991-92 and 1992-93.
The Patriots will wrap up the regular season by visiting third-place Dayton and last-place Saint Louis this week before hosting drooping George Washington and traveling to 25th-ranked Virginia Commonwealth. They are almost assured of appearing in the lowly opening round of the A-10 tournament in Brooklyn for the second straight year.
Shevon Thompson led Mason with 15 points and 14 rebounds (nine offensive). E.C. Matthews scored 18 points for the Rams (19-6, 11-3), who kept pace with VCU atop the conference.
Hewitt is going to have a hard time making a case to return for the final year of his contract. He did not reach the NCAA tournament during his two seasons with the Patriots in the Colonial Athletic Association and has since posted a 7-23 mark in A-10 play.
“We evaluate everything at the end of the year,” said Edwards, a Super Bowl champion with the Redskins who is in his first school year overseeing Mason athletics. “We support our teams and coaches. We will sit down at the end and ask, ‘Where are we? What do we have to do to improve?’ ”
Hewitt’s base salary approaches $700,000 and, in a clause agreed upon by former athletic director Tom O’Connor and ex-president Alan Merten, he receives a lump sum of $85,000 if he is the coach as of March 1 each year — 10 days before the earliest date this season could end.
Miami Coach Jim Larranaga, Hewitt’s predecessor, received $75,000 retention bonuses, but they did not kick in until the end of the season.
Those close to the program, who requested anonymity because they are not permitted to speak on the matter, do not believe Edwards would dismiss Hewitt for the sake of saving $85,000. A decision, they said, would probably come after the season.
Meantime, the Patriots’ situation worsens. With Patrick Holloway, the team’s second-leading scorer and top three-point threat, sidelined with flu-like symptoms, Mason shot 31 percent from the field and 63 from the free throw line.
First-half follies included the 6-foot-11 Thompson attempting a long jumper; Julian Royal committing an offensive foul on an inbounds pass; a length-of-the-court pass going astray; an inbounding violation after a URI basket; Thompson missing a dunk; and Vaughn Gray and Marko Gujanicic each missing a pair of free throws in the last four minutes.
The Rams, who have won eight of nine, were ahead by 14 at intermission. To their credit, the Patriots continued to play hard; they were just not good enough to sustain a comeback. They cut a 17-point gap to nine with 8 ½ minutes left but were never a serious threat.
“I love our effort. I love our rebounding,” Hewitt said. “I like our defense, but we just have trouble scoring.”
Asked about the team’s spirit, he said: “Down. We’re down.”