Every once in a while, there’s a match up on the schedule that you circle when it first comes out, and feel just isn’t going to end well, for some reason. The CAA opener between George Mason and Northeastern this past Thursday was one of those games.
I knew that Northeastern expected to get their senior leader Jonathan Lee back from a foot injury a week or two in advance of the game. And I knew that there would be a small crowd on a weeknight in January, with the students home for winter break. Likewise, I’ve watched all season as Mason failed to defend the three point line, a place that Lee and Northeastern’s leading scorer during Lee’s absence, Joel Smith, both excel. Even worse, I realized that the Huskies were the last CAA team to come to Fairfax and win, in the final home game of the 2010 season, before Mason completed back-to-back perfect 9-0 home CAA performances. Would Northeastern be the bookend to that streak?
The game started a little slowly, with the Patriots trailing 4-0 at the 17:43 mark before redshirt junior Johnny Williams stuck back an Anali Okoloji miss for the home team’s first field goal. Quincy Ford immediately responded with a three-pointer to make it 7-2 Huskies. From there, Sherrod Wright went on a personal 9-2 run over the next two minutes to make it 11-9 in favor of George Mason -- aided by 3 Northeastern turnovers.
A beautiful pass from sophomore point guard Corey Edwards led to a Marko Gujanicic uncontested layup. Then, Jonathan Arledge turned an offensive rebound into another basket, stretching the lead to 15-9 before a Reggie Spencer layup broke the run.
The next four minutes saw more of a defensive struggle, as steals, turnovers, fouls, and missed shots by both teams slowed the pace up, with the score 20-16 Patriots at the under-8 media timeout. Out of the timeout, the Huskies scored 4 quick points to tie the game, but then Edwards found reserve guard Vertrail Vaughns all alone in the corner, and Vaughns knifed through the defense for a contested reverse layup. The shot seemed to give the slumping Vaughns some much-needed confidence, and he connected from long distance on the next possession,
But every time Mason got the lead, Northeastern had an answer. A pair of Ford free throws and a three-pointer by Jonathan Lee (20 points) from Ford tied the game yet again, with 4:58 to go in the half. From there, the Huskies offense experienced a drought that saw them score only three free throws and then one layup with 2 seconds to go, but with Edwards on the bench with two fouls, the Patriots offense slowed. Mason was only able to stretch the lead to 37-30 at the half.
Several things stood out to me in the first half, as I looked for signs of game-by-game improvement from George Mason in what has been a frustrating season. The biggest positive was the performance of Mason’s forwards, especially Jonathan Arledge and Erik Copes. Both have had their struggled catching and holding onto loose balls, whether in the post, at the rim, or on the floor, and yet they showed very good hands Thursday, as Arledge was good for 9 rebounds and 2 steals, and Copes for 9 rebounds and 3 blocks.
The second half began ominously, as Northeastern sank their first three shots, while Johnny Williams committed his third foul just 31 seconds into the half. A wide open three ball by Edwards off a beautiful kickout from Copes temporarily maintained some separation for the Patriots, 42-37, but the Huskies had returned from the locker room with increased intensity, while the Patriots seemed to have lost theirs. Arledge missed a dunk, which led to a Lee three-pointer in transition, and then David Walker tied it with a dunk at 16:14.
Out of the first media timeout, the Patriots showed better passing and better defense, forcing two Northeastern turnovers and stretching the lead to 50-44, with Wright doing the lion’s share.
Northeastern called a timeout with a little over 13 minutes remaining, and the game began to shift. Allen, spelling Edwards at the point, turned it over three times, and Walker assisted on three straight baskets as the Huskies tied the game up once more, at 52-all with 9:57 to play.
It seemed by now that Northeastern had found a strategy to break down the George Mason defense, and the pattern would repeat itself many more times: Drive toward the basket, then pass out to the perimeter, where at least one jump-shooter would be wide open as the Patriots defense collapsed inward, then never reset.
As the second half progressed, it seemed that the visitors from Boston couldn’t miss, but for a while, the home team hung right with them. Vaughns (twice) and Edwards traded three pointers with Zach Stahl (twice) and Demetrios Pollard, while Wright chipped in two for Mason and Stahl converted two free throws and a two.
The lead changed hands several times, until Northeastern went ahead for good, 65-63, on Stahl’s three ball off a kick-out from Quincy Ford (18 points) with 4:56 to play. Mason was helpless to stop the barrage, despite two Paul Hewitt timeouts, as the visitors suddenly went ahead 73-63. Northeastern would finish the game shooting 64% in the second half, including 6-of-9 on three point attempts.
Suddenly confronted with a ten-point hole, the Patriots seemed to get the message, and picked up their intensity, as they took 11 field goal attempts in the final 3 minutes, but they were simply out of time and Mason was forced to start giving fouls. After an Allen layup, they didn’t score another point until Wright’s pair of free throws (19 points) with 49 seconds to play broke the ice. The 6’9” Arledge made it 78-72 on his second three three-pointer of the season with 23 seconds remaining, but the Patriots could get no closer.
The Huskies (6-7, 1-0) made their last six free throws, winning 84-74, and putting up a very impressive 54 points in the second half against a Patriots squad that had come in holding opponents to a CAA low 64 points per game. After only losing one home game in the previous two-plus seasons, Mason (7-6, 0-1) has now lost back-to-back games at the Patriot Center.
All the more frustrating for me personally was that I saw some very good signs from individual players, before the game got out of hand. Corey Edwards has continued to develop as Mason’s starting point guard, finishing with 7 assists and 0 turnovers. The sophomore is now averaging 9 points, 3.5 assists, 1.5 steals, and only 1.8 turnovers in roughly 24 minutes a game over his last 4 games. Jonathan Arledge has struggled in the past with how to use his very long arms to play good defense without getting caught reaching in/around/over his man, but he showed improving skills around and above the rim on offensive and defense (evidenced by his 9 rebounds and 9 rebounds). Redshirt junior Vertrail Vaughns, who offered instant offense off the bench as a freshman (over 49% on treys) and averaged 8.8 points a season ago, finally reminded Mason fans what he can do, breaking out of a season-long slump with 13 points on 5-11 shooting.
As for Northeastern, I was most impressed by 6’5” freshman Zach Stahl, who finished 5 out of 8 from the field, including 2-for-2 on three pointers and 3-for-3 at the line, for a career high 15 points in 20 minutes of play. If Stahl can become a consistent fourth option to complement Ford, Lee, and Smith, the Huskies are going to be a very dangerous team in a weak year for the CAA.