Thursday, January 10, 2013

For the Tribe, Close Losses Becoming a Habit (Recap of George Mason vs Willian & Mary)

Last Saturday afternoon I made the drive three hours south to Williamsburg, Va. with some friends for the George Mason game at the College of William and Mary. (I'd hoped to recap this game a little sooner, but I've tried to make it up by providing some photos this time).

The Tribe have had one of the better seasons in what has been an ugly non-conference showing for the CAA overall. They played a relatively weak non-conference schedule, but they beat pretty much all the teams they were supposed to beat. However, when faced with tougher competition, an unfortunate pattern has repeated itself. At Wake Forest, the Tribe blew a late lead and lost by six. At Richmond, they fell in double overtime. At Purdue, they again fell apart down the stretch and lost by seven. Double-digit losses to Miami of Ohio and Vanderbilt ended more poorly, but both times the Tribe was in the game at least until the second half. As a result, William and Mary were still very much an unknown going into the Mason game.

This was my first visit to Kaplan Arena, an 8,600-seat gym that the Tribe unfortunately rarely fills. On the whole, it was a pleasant experience. The seating bowl and sight lines are underrated. One inconsistency I noted was that the concession stands and restrooms seemed small for so large a venue, but they were sufficient for the 3,506 on hand. The College’s students were still away on winter break, which meant there weren’t many students on hand, and also, apparently meant there was no pep band, and only a token number of cheerleaders.

A friend of mine was able to score us tickets right behind the George Mason bench, which provided a rare glimpse into just how much communications happens during the game, and who the most vocal coaches and players are. I was surprised by how constantly some of Mason’s bench players were yelling to their teammates on the court -- for example, warning them about an open shooter on their blind side.

For once, George Mason got off to a hot start, hitting their first three shots for a 7-0 lead and forcing a quick William and Mary timeout. A Sherrod Wright fast break dunk made it 11-2 before the Tribe found their offense, fueled by back-to-back three pointers from guards Brandon Britt and Marcus Thornton. The two teams traded baskets for the next few minutes, leaving the score at 18-11 Patriots at the 13 minute mark.

From there, the home team began to tighten the game, as junior forward Tim Rusthoven asserted his presence in the paint for back to back buckets, and the visitors turned it over twice, then committed some cheap fouls. Tribe leading scorer Marcus Thornton cut the lead to 18-17 with a pair of free throws, before a Wright layup made it 20-17 at the 9:55 mark.

Mason's offense got back on track as Patrick Holloway picked off a pass under the basket, and lead the break back the other way, spinning around two defenders before passing ahead to Edwards in the corner. Edwards quickly passed back to a driving Johnny Williams for the dunk. The Patriots hit the three-pointers and turned offensive boards into baskets, stretching their lead to 31-23 at the under-4 media timeout.

Out of the timeout, a Thornton three-point play ended the 13-4 Patriots run, and ignited the crowd. Energized, the Tribe forced Mason into several bad shots in a row. More frustrating, especially for Hewitt, were several iffy calls by the officials. First, Wright appeared to be hit in the head and fouled hard on a layup, yet was called for a charge. Second, a Mason put back was waived off for supposed offensive basket interference, even though to my eye (and apparently Hewitt's) the ball hit the rim and deflected away from the rim before it was touched. Third, a Vertrail Vaughns three-pointer was waived off because of a three-second call in the paint (the only one of the game despite plenty of standing around by both teams).

All parties, not just the Mason faithful, became frustrated when the shot clock was inadvertently reset on an emphatic Erik Copes blocked shot, and the referees needed nearly five minutes to find the real shot clock time via video review. Hewitt spent most of the stoppage complaining about the previous calls, especially the interference play and Wright's blow to the head, and continued the conversation at halftime, before heading to the locker room.

Mason was fortunate that the half was almost over, because nothing broke their way over the last few minutes of the first half. The crowd was loud and in to the action, the Tribe were hot, and Mason couldn't get a stop or make a shot themselves, failing to score a field goal for the last 4:38 of the first half. The Patriots managed only a pair of Wright free throws and went to the locker room down 37-33.

During the first half, Mason coach Paul Hewitt began to experiment with a new lineup, placing both point guards (the starter Corey Edwards and his backup Bryon Allen) on the floor at the same time. This is a move that some Mason fans have speculated about for weeks, and it seemed to pay off, as Edwards acted at the distributor on offense, while Allen was able to focus on defense and his ability to run the floor and drive to the basket.

The second half began with the two teams slowly trading baskets for the first six minutes or so, but then Mason began to go on a run, as Wright scored two quick baskets and assisted on a third, giving the Patriots their first lead of the half on a steal and layup. William and Mary quickly called time out with 12:20 to play, trailing 45-43.The Tribe missed two three-point attempts on the ensuing possession, before Bryon Allen made a free throw for Mason, and Brandon Britt hit a layup to cut the Tribe deficit to one.

Edwards pushed the ball quickly up the floor after the made basket, finding freshman sharpshooter Patrick Holloway all alone in the left corner, and Holloway hit on a lightning quick three-pointer before the Tribe defense could get back. Mason had the momentum now, and Jonathan Arledge hit a pair of free throws to stretch the lead to 51-45 Patriots with 10:38 to play.

But the Tribe, and especially Tim Rusthoven, weren't done. Rusthoven found ways to get deep in the paint against the Mason frontcourt, and scored two layups and knocked down an and-one free throw to help cut the deficit to 53-51. Wright, who already had 18 points for the Patriots, countered with a layup, but then made a very bad decision, picking up a dead ball technical foul for taunting.

Marcus Thornton (19 points) made both technical free throws, and then a layup, trying the game at 55-all, and Brandon Britt added one of two from the line to pull the home team back ahead, 56-55. Now was the danger point for the Patriots. Yet again, the momentum was slipping away from them. But Wright stepped up, seemingly fueled by his frustration with his own mistake. The junior scored 10 points in a six minute stretch to finish with a career high 28, and Johnny Williams (9 points) added a huge three-point play.

The Tribe were forced to trade free throws for layups, and the Patriots made 7 of 11 at the line down the stretch. Four straight empty possessions for William and Mary (7-6, 1-1 CAA) provided an insurmountable 68-61 deficit, and Mason held off the Tribe for a 73-66 win. Yet again, the Tribe held a late lead (58-57 with 5:21 to play) before folding down the stretch, giving up a 16-8 closing run to the visitors.

Despite the loss, I was impressed by what I saw from the College. It's hard to believe that Tim Rusthoven (19 points and 11 rebounds) is still only a junior in what feels like his sixth season in the CAA. The 6'9" forward has learned how to use his size and proper positioning down low. Just about every time he was able to post up and get deep enough into the paint, he scored, often drawing a foul as well from Mason's frustrated big men. The legend of "Beasthoven" will continue to grow if he repeats his performance on Saturday.

Three players did all the scoring for the Tribe -- Rusthoven and Thorton with 19 and Britt with 18, but they got little help from their teammates. Fellow starters Matt Rum and Kyle Galliard finished a combined 3-11 from the field, and the bench contributed exactly 2 additional points. The big three put up some very nice numbers, but they're going to need some help from their teammates if William and Mary want to capitalize on a weakened CAA.

As for the visiting Patriots (8-6, 1-1 CAA), each game for the last month or so has brought continued development from Corey Edwards as the starting point guard. Saturday, Edwards (10 points, 5 assists, 1 turnover) was able to keep himself out of foul trouble and play 33 minutes. This development allowed Bryon Allen to slide over and play shooting guard, where he seemed much more comfortable.

Another positive for Mason (besides the obvious -- Wright's continued dominance) was that they didn't let their mistakes snowball this time. Lapses on offense or defense didn't last long enough for the Tribe to pull away. To be fair, the home team had some opportunities, but they didn't have the unbelievable luck that Northeasten had in shooting 64% in the second half against Mason earlier in the week.

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