Ryan Pearson is an acrobat and contortionist around the basket, conjuring implausible ways to score. He also has a respectable three-point shot, and when James Madison left him open at crucial junctures of the second half Saturday, George Mason’s bullish senior forward was equally effective.
All told, Pearson was at his unconventional and well-rounded best, recording 29 points, 15 rebounds and a key blocked shot to carry the Patriots to an 89-79 victory in front of a season-high 8,014 observers in Fairfax.
Tying a career high in rebounds and setting a personal best for points in a Colonial Athletic Association game, he re-established his case for the league’s player of the year award after laboring in three of the previous six games.
“He was up,” George Mason Coach Paul Hewitt said. “He’s had some moments where he has been in some lulls. He was especially ready for this game. And he’s a senior. He’s coming down to the wire now, and he’s enjoying it.”
With Pearson back in rhythm, the Patriots (18-5, 10-1) won their sixth straight and 11th in 12 games to retain the top spot in the CAA. Starting guards Bryon Allen, Vertrail Vaughns and Andre Cornelius combined for six three-pointers and 38 points to help offset 27 points and seven assists by 5-foot-9 Dukes guard Humpty Hitchens.
George Mason went ahead to stay with a 12-0 burst bridging the halves, but like several games this month, there wasn’t a sense of relief until the closing moments. The Dukes (10-12, 3-8) cut a 12-point deficit to two with 3 minutes 43 seconds left before the Patriots scored on nine of their final 10 possessions to beat their intrastate rivals for the 18th time in the past 20 meetings.
The margin was four with 1½ minutes left when Allen darted for a layup and Pearson blocked A.J. Davis’s three-point attempt from behind, all but sealing the outcome.
It was Pearson’s unique offensive style that most bedeviled the Dukes. He shot 11 for 18 from the field, 5 for 7 from the free throw line and added three assists. Pearson entered the day third in the CAA in scoring (17 points per game) and fifth in rebounding (8.5 per game).
“He is an absolute throwback,” Dukes Coach Matt Brady said. “He is a ’60s, ’70s basketball player. The speed of the game doesn’t bother him. Athletes don’t bother him. Size doesn’t bother him. He’s got a way about playing.
“He’s good at everything, but the kid is great at putting the ball in the basket.”
Pearson had 12 of his team’s 14 points over one span in the second half, starting with a shot while falling in the lane and finishing with his second three-pointer of the afternoon and 18th of the season (matching his personal best, set last year).
After grabbing just two rebounds in the first half, assistant coach Roland Houston got on him in the locker room.
“It wasn’t acceptable to him,” Pearson said. “He wanted me to think every shot is a miss and go after everything.”
The Patriots had a 45-29 rebounding advantage and, in a reversal of season-long form, their offensive rebounding total (21) was greater than the opponent’s defensive figure (18). Freshman Erik Copes returned from a five-game injury absence to grab five offensive rebounds.
With a successful month behind them, the Patriots will brace for a difficult final stretch of the regular season, including two games against Virginia Commonwealth (18-5, 9-2) and one with Old Dominion (14-9, 9-2).
“Great way to close out January,” Hewitt said. “It’s going to be an interesting February.”
Patriots notes: The team’s Bracket Busters opponent for a Feb. 17-18 nonconference home game will be revealed Monday evening. . . . George Mason will play at Delaware (9-12, 5-6) on Wednesday before hosting ODU on homecoming Saturday.