Traditionally, James Madison is George Mason's biggest rival in the CAA. However, with JMU routinely failing to be competitive for most of the last decade, and Mason having won 17 of the last 18 meetings in the series prior to last Tuesday night, there had been a sense, at least among younger Patriots fans, that VCU was becoming our true rival.
This burning passion was fueled by incidents like the Rams' repeated elimination of Mason from the CAA tournament (including Eric Maynor's incredible one-man comeback to beat Mason in the 2007 CAA championship), and Sherrod Wright's buzzer-beating three-pointer in a regular season match-up last year. But now that VCU has left the CAA for the Atlantic 10 (or 14, or 16), I believe we have to say JMU is once again Mason's primary rival.
The CAA schedule makers must not have seen things the same way, as they placed the Madison at Mason game on a weeknight for the first time in a decade, and compounded that by scheduling it on a Tuesday night in January, before the students had returned from break.
The first half was almost hard to watch. Erik Copes scored a quick two on the Patriots first possession, but then both teams got off to ugly starts from the field. A pair of Enoch Hood free throws gave the Dukes their first lead, 10-9, at the under-12 media time out.
Fouls and turnovers continued to be a theme, with more scoring done via the free throws than via field goals. Sherrod Wright, George Mason's undisputed leader, found no space to work in the JMU defense, failing in his increasingly creative attempts to drive to the basket, but drawing numerous fouls. Wright would finish the game only 5 of 13 from the field, but he made 12 of 16 free throws.
Freshman Ron Curry finally provided a spark for the visitors, hitting three three-pointers in a three-minute span to give the Dukes a 29-22 lead with 4:27 remaining in the half. Taylor Bessick made it 31-22, and George Mason called time out. From there, the Patriots were able to contain the Dukes for the rest of the half, holding them to 1 for 4 from the floor, while cutting the deficit to 33-28, highlighted by a Corey Edwards steal and an emphatic Anali Okoloji dunk. Wright blocked Curry's three-point try at the buzzer.
Mason was not playing well, and despite the late spurt, it really felt like the Dukes could win. But with the deficit down to five, George Mason began to steadily chip away as the second half began. Complicating matters, starting center Copes, generally seen as the key to Mason's post defense, picked up his third foul less than a minute into the half.
The second half started slowly too, as the two teams largely traded baskets, before a Johnny Williams layup reduced the Dukes team to 41-38 at the 13:59 mark. Enoch Hood countered to make it 43-38, but then the Patriots began to push the pace and press full court, with Bryon Allen at point guard. Allen scored a layup when JMU failed to get back quickly enough on defense after Hood's basket. Then, Williams blocked a shot, and Paris Bennett passed ahead to Wright, to a cutting Allen, for a three-point play to tie the game.
Hood got open in the lane for a dunk, but again the Dukes didn't get back fast enough, and Allen found Wright for a wide open three-pointer, to finally give Mason the lead, 46-45, with 10 minutes to play. Goins made one of two free throws, and, after a Patriots miss, converted a layup, but freshman Marko Gujanicic answered for the Patriots, hitting a three-pointer on another nice pass from Allen.
Goins got the lead back for JMU one more time at 7:47, but then the Patriots went on a 9-0 run, fueled by their full court pressure and some very poor Dukes shot selection. Gujanicic hit a second three-pointer from almost the same spot, and Vertrail Vaughns and Bryon Allen each scored again on the fast break. Rather suddenly it was 59-50 with under 5 minutes to play, and the Dukes never recovered.
A Rayshawn Goins layup made it 62-57, but the Dukes could get no closer, as the Patriots made 6 of 8 free throws to close out the win, 68-57. Gujanicic finished with his first career double-double, scoring 10 points and collecting 10 rebounds. Wright led all scorers with 23 points, while Goins led the Dukes with 13 and Curry added 11.
After shooting 5 of 10 on three-pointers in the first half, often wide open, the Dukes were held to 0 for 8 in the second half, as the Patriots seemed to adjust to what has been a season-long struggle to defend the arc. Meanwhile, the Patriots were 3 for 9 in the second half, after a miserable 1 for 5 in the first half, with all 3 coming in a short span. The flurry of late three-pointers seemed to open the lane up for Bryon Allen and others to drive to the basket.