Early in the second half Saturday, George Mason freshman Justin Kier wasn’t moving to the scorer’s table as quickly as Dave Paulsen wanted. So like a parent pushing a child riding a tricycle for the first time, the Patriots’ second-year coach nudged him along by the lower back while barking, “Get there! Get there!”
As that moment — as well as the 67-61 defeat to Towson — demonstrated in unambiguous terms, Paulsen will have to both guide and nurture a roster featuring almost all freshmen and sophomores.
The Patriots mixed promise and prematurity in the season opener before 4,814 at EagleBank Arena in Fairfax. They were tied with 71/2 minutes left before running out of offensive options and succumbing to Towson’s experience and size.
“I am tremendously disappointed in the outcome, but I am not discouraged,” said Paulsen, whose rebuilding project began last season with an 11-21 campaign. “That was a game we could have won. That’s a game we have to be able to win down the stretch.”
Paulsen started three sophomores and summoned four freshmen and two sophomores off the bench. The results were predictably erratic.
Senior Jalen Jenkins, the only front-court player in the starting lineup, led the team in points (19), rebounds (seven) and assists (four). He shot 9 of 11 from the field but 1 of 4 at the free throw line. Senior Marquise Moore and sophomore Otis Livingston II scored 13 and 11 points, respectively.
The Patriots made only seven of their first 14 free throws before hitting the last six when the result was all but decided. They were also 4 of 22 on three-pointers and committed 17 turnovers.
Senior forward Arnaud William Adala Moto (Episcopal) scored 16 of his 22 points in the second half for the Tigers, who are picked to finish second in the Colonial Athletic Association behind UNC Wilmington. Junior guard Mike Morsell (St. John’s) contributed 21 points and nine rebounds in a game with 14 lead changes.
Paulsen’s challenges ranged from a shot-clock violation on the first possession of the game to Towson’s abundance of second-chance opportunities.
But there were also positive signs, such as the team’s last possession of the first half. Trailing by a point with 23 seconds left, Paulsen called a timeout. The Patriots then executed the play to perfection, with Jenkins feeding freshman Ian Boyd for a backdoor layup and 31-30 lead.
Jenkins’s low-post work and sophomore DeAndre Abram’s dunk got the second half started well. Later, Moore scored seven consecutive points.
With the Tigers leading 49-46, sophomore Jaire Grayer made a three-pointer at the 7:26 mark. But the Patriots then left Adala Moto wide open for a three, and Towson remained ahead to stay.
Jenkins’s three-point play cut the deficit to one with 3:21 to go, but that was the Patriots’ last field goal. Adala Moto answered with his own three-point play and a three-point shot to secure victory.
“It just seemed like freshman jitters, but they played hard,” Jenkins said of the youth crew. “They made good plays, so honestly I think they’ll be ready. Just to see them play hard is fun.”
Notes: Javon Greene, a 6-2 guard from McDonough, Ga., and Goanar Mar, a 6-7 forward from Mankato, Minn., signed letters of intent to join the program next season. . . . The Patriots will host Division III Lebanon Valley on Tuesday.