It wasn’t artistic, by any means. But Mike Morrison compensated for leading scorer Ryan Pearson’s difficult outing with one of the finest performances of his career and the Patriots (12-4, 4-0) converted 11 of 12 free throws in the last 2½ minutes to secure their fifth consecutive victory and stop the Panthers’ run at 11.
In addition to his 14 points, career-high 15 rebounds and four blocks, Morrison made a key basket to push the lead to three before drawing a charging foul with 37 seconds left.
Pearson, a senior forward who was held without a made field goal for the first time since the fourth game of his freshman year, made two free throws with 27 seconds left for a five-point advantage. The Panthers (11-4, 3-1) didn’t get closer than three again.
“They took Ryan away from us — credit to them — but I liked the fact that our guys hung tough, made our free throws and pulled out a win,” Patriots Coach Paul Hewitt said.
Pearson, averaging 18.7 points and shooting 55 percent, managed just four attempts. He did, however, make all 10 free throws in front of 5,191 at Patriot Center.
“It wasn’t just Ryan,” Morrison said. “We had a tough time getting any good shots. We eventually settled down and worked the ball and figured out to push the ball so they couldn’t set their defense. We ended up pushing it down their throats as many times as we can. We got a few good runs. We never really got a great flow of offense.”
It was a game of mini-bursts, poor shooting and lots of turnovers. Leading by eight at intermission, the Patriots shot 32 percent in the second half and committed 19 turnovers overall. Georgia State was 10 of 17 from the line, compared to George Mason’s 18-of-21 accuracy.
Sophomore guard Vertrail Vaughns made three three-pointers and had 17 points for the Patriots. Jihad Ali scored 19 for Georgia State, which has never finished better than eighth in the CAA since joining in 2005-06 and was picked to finish 11th in the 12-team conference this year.
The Panthers lost their first three games before embarking on their surge and winning by an average of 19 points for their best start since going 11-1 under Lefty Driesell in 2000-01.
Before Saturday’s game, Coach Ron Hunter told his team, “The days of Georgia State just showing up and it’s a win [for the opponent], those days are over.”
The Panthers’ switching defenses and traps caused major problems. George Mason finally found its way to build a 31-23 lead, but the turnovers piled up. Freshman Corey Edwards triggered Patriots’ runs in both halves, but his inexperience caught up with him and he committed five turnovers. Pearson had six.
“Corey played very well, but you see why freshman point guards give coaches gray hair,” Hewitt said. “He took the game back from them. They had the game, he came in and took it back, and he almost handed it back.”
The Panthers scored the first eight points of the second half to tie it, and the teams exchanged bursts until Pearson’s free throws with 1 minute 52 seconds left gave the Patriots the lead for good.
“When we play hard, and we play strong and we play together,” Vaughns said, “it’s tough to stop us.”