After the 22 lead changes and 17 ties, after the 143 field goal attempts, 59 free throws tries, 50 fouls and finally Rhode Island’s miss at the overtime buzzer, Paul Hewitt exhaled.
His first game as George Mason’s men’s basketball coach Friday night was an untamed, riveting affair that felt like a late-season outing, not a season opener. With senior Ryan Pearson scoring a career-high 28 points and Hewitt’s young players contributing key plays, the Patriots survived Jamal Wilson’s 38 pointsand prevailed, 92-90, in front of 6,644 entertained spectators in Fairfax.
The Rams had forced overtime on Jonathan Holton’s three-pointer with 28 seconds left, and in the extra period, Orion Outerbridge’s late three nearly went in.
“To see that last one rattle out, I just looked back at [assistant] Mike Wells and [said], ‘I came back for this?’ ” Hewitt said with a broad smile.
After being dismissed by Georgia Tech last spring, Hewitt hadn’t planned to coach this season. But by accepting George Mason’s offer, he thrust himself back into the emotional and unpredictable world of college basketball.
He watched his team get off to a predictably ragged start and trail by 10 in the first half. He marveled as Pearson scored 22 points on 8-of-11 shooting after halftime and corralled 12 rebounds overall. He watched his team rebound from early troubles to shoot 23 for 37 (62 percent) in the second half.
He saw sophomore Sherrod Wright return from a redshirt season to score 17 points and freshman Corey Edwards make two crucial steals in overtime. Sophomore Vertrail Vaughns also had 17 points for the Patriots, who have won nine straight season openers.
Wilson, whose previous career high was 14, led five Rams in double figures by shooting 13 of 22 overall and scoring 29 points after halftime.
On the final sequence, after Pearson made 1 of 2 free throws, the Rams used Wilson as a decoy and went for the victory instead of the tie. “He was wide open,” Rams Coach Jim Baron said of Outerbridge. “It was an excellent shot.”
The Patriots’ early problems were defense and rebounding, but they responded well, holding the Rams scoreless for 51 / 2 minutes. Their shooting was slow to catch up, and at one point in the first half, they were 6 for 26 from the field, 0 for 6 on three-pointers and 3 for 7 from the free throw line.
The Patriots drew even by halftime, 33-33, and implemented the running game to build a five-point lead in the second half. In one stretch, seven of their eight baskets came in transition.
“Coach Hewitt has been stressing about transition — we thought we could get a lot of points off transition,” Wright said. “With the team we have, basically with three guards, any of us can push it up and find people.”
The Patriots were ahead by a point when Wright converted Vaughns’s miss for an 80-77 lead with 39 seconds left. But Holton, who had missed his first five three-point attempts, connected from long distance and Pearson’s missed heave at the buzzer forced overtime.
In the extra period, Wilson scored nine straight for the Rams to help offset an early Mason surge. But down the stretch, Pearson put the Patriots ahead for good with 2:42 left, Wright added a fast-break layup and Edwards made two steals, setting up the dramatic end.
“One of the things these guys believe is that they are in better shape than their opponents,” Hewitt said. “They think if they get out in transition and make good decisions and make it a fast-paced game, they feel like the conditions are going to catch up to the other team.
“There was one point, I think at the start of overtime, you could hear the guys saying, ‘We’re in better shape, we’re in better shape. We’re fine.’ ”
Patriots notes: George Mason will play Florida International on Monday in the NIT Preseason Tip-Off at Virginia Tech. The winner will play the Hokies or Monmouth the next day.