First, he complimented them for recovering from an 18-point deficit in the second half with 15 minutes of sterling basketball that pushed them to a one-point lead over the Atlantic 10 preseason favorites with 62 seconds left.
He also shared his disappointment, not necessarily for the overall display or the decisive final minute, but for what occurred 24 hours earlier: a rotten practice, which, in his mind, led to a rotten first half.
“A great tribute to our guys the way we fought back,” Paulsen said. “They’ve also got to know that if we want to be a championship team, we have to have a championship approach to every single thing we do.”
Trailing for almost the entire game, the Patriots (18-9, 8-6) mounted an epic comeback before running out of answers, ending a four-game winning streak.
With a chance to claim third place behind co-leaders Virginia Commonwealth and Dayton, Mason settled for a fifth-place tie with St. Bonaventure and La Salle heading into the last four games of the regular season. The Patriots will visit Dayton (21-5, 12-2) on Tuesday.
The Rams (17-9, 9-5) recovered from a gruesome home defeat to Fordham and claimed third place. The top four teams will receive double byes in the 14-team conference tournament March 8-12 in Pittsburgh.
Paulsen’s only seniors in the rotation led the way: Forward Jalen Jenkins made 14 of 17 free throws and scored 22 points, while guard Marquise Moore contributed 19 points and 10 rebounds for his 17th double-double.
Jenkins’s three-point play provided a 72-71 lead, the Patriots’ first since 2-0. But after Stanford Robinson’s free throws, Jenkins traveled with 31 seconds left. Robinson, a Paul VI graduate who transferred to Rhode Island from Indiana, added two more free throws for a career-high 21 points.
Otis Livingston II’s three-point attempt caromed off the side of the backboard with 16 seconds left. Later, the Patriots had two additional chances to tie, but Jaire Grayer’s inbounds pass was intercepted with four seconds left, and after Robinson’s missed free throws, Jenkins’s 80-foot hurl smacked the backboard.
Aside from Robinson, another local player hurt the Patriots: freshman Jeff Dowtin (St. John’s), who had seven points, seven assists and five rebounds before a crowd of 6,145 in Fairfax.
Paulsen tried to sign Dowtin two years ago, even calling the guard on the drive to his introductory news conference. “I wish he were wearing green,” he said.
The Patriots were in over their heads in the first half. While the Rams ran their offense, everything was a chore for Mason.
The Rams made six of their first eight three-pointers en route to a 16-point lead. They stretched a 39-26 halftime gap to 51-33 before the Patriots sprung to life.
“We just had to relax,” Jenkins said. “In the first half, we didn’t get our shots. I went one-and-one and tried to be the hero. Second half, we came out and moved the ball, Marquise [got going], we found open shooters, and after that we were just rolling.”
Livingston’s acrobatic layup capped a 14-2 run, and after a Rhode Island timeout and free throw, the Patriots scored seven in a row to draw even at 54 with 91/2 minutes left.
“We got out early and in pretty good control of the game,” Rams Coach Dan Hurley said, “but then we had to deal with the quality that Coach Paulsen has put together here in a short amount of time. . . . They made us earn this one.”
The Rams restored a six-point lead. The Patriots responded. And in the end, the visitors were a bit better.
“With a better level of composure and focus in the first half,” Paulsen said, harping on the Friday practice, “we might not be talking about one possession here, one possession there.”