NORFOLK — With 15 seconds left and a momentous victory secure Thursday night, George Mason’s Ryan Pearson let out a howl that reverberated through the rapidly emptying Constant Center.
“Wooooo!” the scraggly bearded forward cried.
With a 63-54 victory over Old Dominion, Pearson and his fellow seniors exorcised four seasons of pent-up aggravation and the program purged eight years of disappointment here.
“We came in as freshmen together and we lost every single year,” Pearson said, speaking for Mike Morrison and Andre Cornelius. “We said in our preseason workouts that we were going to get a win here at ODU.”
The Patriots (11-4, 3-0) stretched their winning streak to four and set up an early Colonial Athletic Association showdown Saturday night in Fairfax against Georgia State, the only other team unbeaten in conference play. The Panthers have won 11 in a row since losing their first three games.
Before looking ahead, the Patriots relished this achievement.
“It’s nice when everybody [is] genuinely happy to get a win,” said Coach Paul Hewitt, in his first season at George Mason after 11 with Georgia Tech. “It just showed me how important it was for them to come down here and get this win.
“It’s exciting to be a part of it. I told them, ‘Thanks for bringing me along. I’m 1-0 here. I don’t know about you guys!’ ”
Despite leading almost the entire way, the Patriots weren’t in the clear until Morrison blocked Chris Cooper’s dunk attempt and the team made 5 of 6 free throws in the final minute of the unsightly game.
The Monarchs (7-8, 2-1) shot 25 percent in the second half and 29.5 overall. They were 12 for 25 from the free throw line and 6 for 21 on three-pointers. The most astounding statistic, though, might’ve been this: 22 offensive rebounds but only one second-chance basket.
The Patriots also struggled. After a sizzling start, they went 22 minutes without hitting a shot from beyond five feet and made 38 percent in the second half.
“It’s not like they were [shooting] lights-out,” Monarchs Coach Blaine Taylor said. “Their lights just weren’t as dim as ours.”
Pearson continued his superb season with 16 points and 14 rebounds, and sophomore point guard Bryon Allen scored 10 of his 14 points in the second half.
But with the game stagnating and neither side able to make a decisive run, it was sophomore Vertrail Vaughns (13 points) who stepped up. His three-pointer with five minutes left boosted the advantage to nine.
“The sign of a bad team is when you don’t score and you allow it to impact your defensive energy,” Hewitt said. “We didn’t do that. It’s nice for them to get rewarded and get an extra boost on one of the defensive possessions after seeing the ball go through.”
The Patriots set the tone right away, working the ball inside to Morrison (10 points, nine rebounds). The tactic opened the court for Pearson to hit a pair of three-pointers. Everything was flowing George Mason’s way.
The Monarchs missed six shots on a single possession, most from close range. Morrison followed with a layup, and the Patriots claimed their biggest lead, 28-16. Their rhythm, however, was deteriorating, and in the final 10 minutes of the half, they shot 3 for 10 — all the made baskets were layups — and committed five turnovers.
Kent Bazemore (17 points, four steals) led Old Dominion’s charge, and despite poor all-around shooting, the Monarchs were within three at the break. The second half continued at a plodding pace, with George Mason’s lead ranging between two and seven until Vaughns’s key three-pointer.
“We really stayed together — that was the difference in the end,” Morrison said. “We got [defensive] stops, hit big shots, got what we came here to do.”