A new year has yet to dawn, and the college basketball season is only beginning to percolate. Yet here were George Mason and Virginia Commonwealth on Friday before a feverish audience in Fairfax on the opening day of the Atlantic 10 calendar, tumbling after loose balls, growling at one another and squawking at the referees.
After years on divergent paths, the Patriots have reappeared out of the wilderness, fueling a ferocious rivalry. The Rams prevailed, 73-64, but the atmosphere crackled with the type of energy and fury unseen at EagleBank Arena for many winters.
“It’s the first time in a while this was considered a big game,” Patriots Coach Dave Paulsen said, “and you have to learn how to play in a big game, to treat it like a big game but also like it’s any other game on your schedule. And that’s a learning process.”
The result halted the Patriots’ winning streak at nine, their longest in six years, and extended the Rams’ run to five. Mason did not lead after the first few minutes, but amid youthful mistakes and a big rebounding disadvantage, it played with courage.
“We learned we could compete with them,” senior guard Marquise Moore said. “We held our own for 15 to 16 minutes. So we know we can play with anybody in this league.”
Senior guard JeQuan Lewis had 26 points and five steals for the Rams (11-3), who scored 46 points in the paint and outrebounded the Patriots (10-4) by 42-31 in helping to offset 21 turnovers. Mason entered the night first in the A-10 in rebounding margin.
Rams senior forward Mo Alie-Cox recorded 14 points, nine rebounds, three assists, three blocked shots and two steals.
Jalen Jenkins led the Patriots with 12 points, while Moore, Otis Livingston II, Jaire Grayer and Ian Boyd added 10 apiece. Moore, slowed in the second half by a groin injury, entered the night averaging 18.1 points and 11.1 rebounds.
“Mason is a good team, much improved,” Rams Coach Will Wade said. “They play extremely, extremely hard.”
The experience gap was revealed early in the game. The Patriots made mistakes and rushed shots typical of young players caught in the tempest of a much-anticipated game.
“Today at shoot-around, they were skittish,” Paulsen said. “They were too amped up. Kind of like my kids the night before Christmas. And didn’t show a level of maturity.”
The Rams turned up the heat to force turnovers and score in transition. Long-range shots weren’t necessary; they were graced with layups and open looks inside 10 feet.
Over five-plus minutes, the Rams scored 13 consecutive points and watched the Patriots miss nine straight shots, including a dunk and three-point air ball.
Moore prevented the game from spilling out of control, and as the half wore on, the Patriots found their way with upgraded defensive intensity, picture-perfect backdoor plays and three-point plays.
After a quiet first half, Jenkins worked on Alie-Cox in the low post. Alie-Cox worked back.
Several times, the Rams threatened to pull away; each time, the Patriots responded.
VCU finally gained separation down the stretch, helped by a no-call with about 4½ minutes left. As Paulsen and the crowd protested, Lewis swished the last of his three three-pointers for a nine-point edge.
Jenkins answered with two baskets, but the Rams overcame missed free throws to secure their third road victory without a defeat.
“I said to many people before this game, ‘If we happened to win this game, we haven’t arrived. And if we didn’t win the game, there is a lot of basketball left to be played,’ ” Paulsen said. “We just have to continuously be obsessed with improving.”