Saturday, February 9, 2013

Never a Dull Trip to Harrisonburg (Recap of George Mason vs James Madison)

Mops have one purpose in life: keeping the court clean.

They're not intended to be used to hit a basketball, and if somehow they do touch the ball, that contact certainly should not result in the ball finding it's way into the basket. Yet that is exactly what happened last Saturday, when the James Madison Dukes hosted the George Mason Patriots.

Near the end of the first half, after taking a weird bounce off the rim of the Mason basket, the ball somehow found itself stuck among the basket supports above the backboard. One of the referees borrowed a long-handled mop from the ballboy, and attempted to poke the ball loose, but he was too short to reach the ball, and Dukes center Rayshawn Goins took over.

His first attempt sparked only some laughter, as the ball popped straight up, then nestled right back where it came from. The second attempt was far more successful, as the ball fell over the front of the backboard, and dropped straight through the hoop, Swish!

I'm not sure Goins could have repeated the feat if he'd tried, and the near-capacity crowd almost lost its collective mind. I feel pretty safe in saying JMU fans have never cheered (and never again will cheer) so loudly for a ball entering an opponent's basket.


Something unusual (if not outright bizarre) always seems to happen when I visit the Convocation Center. One year, a friend of mine even gave some Dukes fans from Fairfax a ride back to Northern Virginia after their car was totaled in an accident.

A few weeks ago, I wrote about my first visit to the Convo in 2008, for Dre Smith's NCAA-record breaking 10 of 10 performance from behind the three point arc. The next season provided an entirely different type of drama, as then-freshman Ryan Pearson's controlled-yet-desperate heave from mid-court kissed glass, hit the rim for a glorious millisecond, then popped out, as the Dukes escaped with a 2-point victory. The Madison students promptly stormed the court. It's hard to blame them for being excited about what's now their only win in the last 21 games in the series, but at the time it seemed excessive, adding insult to injury.

Perhaps the best drama of all came in 2010, in what will forever be known by both sides as the Hot Dog Game. Mason was up by 15 midway through the second half and the Patriots seemed well on their way to another beatdown of their southwestern rival. But then, the Dukes, fed by a raucous Convo crowd, went on a run that cut the lead to four. The momentum seemed unstoppable, until, right in the midst of a pair of JMU free throws, a hot dog inexplicably flew onto the court, thrown by a Madison student. The referees had no choice but to assess a technical foul, and the Dukes' surge came to an abrupt end. (JMU assistant coach Rob O'Driscoll re-told the entire tale last year, including what later happened to the kid who threw the hot dog).

2011 provided one of the hardest-fought basketball games I have ever attended. A late morning start time made the drive south a little weird, and I wasn't fully awake until about a quarter-second after I stepped inside the Convo. I have never seen a college arena that electric at 11 AM on a Saturday morning. The nationally-televised heavyweight bout went back and forth for a full 40 minutes, with Cam Long scoring a career-high 30 points for the Patriots while Dukes star Denzel Bowles posted 21 points, 14 rebounds, and 6 blocks. Mason led 33-32 at the half, only to fall behind by 8 in the second half before rallying for a 75-73 victory.

Last season, I was unable to make the trip due to work commitments and a nagging head cold that had left me exhausted. As it turned out, I didn't miss much. The game was ruined by an astounding 63 personal fouls, many of them completely unnecessary. With everyone in foul trouble, neither team could play defense, and when combined with 89 free throw attempts, the final was 89-83 in favor of Mason, a huge score in the normally-stingy CAA.


Both teams entered the day with injury concerns.

James Madison has been positively snake-bitten with injuries in recent years, and this season has been no different. Fifth-year senior Andrey Semenov would miss the game with foot and shoulder injuries, and fellow red-shirt senior Devon Moore had left the previous game with an ankle injury, leading to doubts about his availability.

George Mason, meanwhile, lost starting forward and second-leading scorer Johnny Williams to a concussion a week prior. In his place, Jonathan Arledge had started and scored a then career-high 14 points against Drexel two days earlier, but he'd only played 2 minutes against Madison in the previous meeting in Fairfax.

The game began about as well as Mason could have hoped. Unlike other recent road games, they started out hot on offense and energetic on defense. James Madison won the tip but turned it over moments later, leading to a Sherrod Wright three pointer. The Dukes turned it over twice more, and Taylor Bessick picked up two quick fouls, while Mason jumped ahead 11-0. Corey Edwards capped the run with a wide-open three pointer, but Rayshawn Goins quickly countered for the Dukes.

Madison managed to pull within 13-10 with a layup out of the under-16 timeout, but then both teams slowed down as the game became a bit of a defensive struggle, with Mason maintaining a 3 to 8 point lead. Every time the Dukes got the lead down to three, the Patriots responded. A.J. Davis hit a huge three-pointer for the home team to cut the lead to 19-16, but almost immediately Patrick Holloway responded with a trey of his own.

This year, the annual task of providing me an unusual incident fell to the Convo itself. With around two minutes to play in the first half, both baskets rebelled. First, as mentioned, Goins got to play stick-ball with the backboard above the Mason basket. Then, on the very next possession, the officials noticed that the net on the Madison basket was torn. An 11-minute delay ensued, while the damaged net was cut down and a new net installed. To their credit, the JMU cheerleaders attempted to fill the time with increasingly imaginative stunts, from walking nearly the entire length of the court on their hands, to building a pyramid at center court.

I've seen some strange facilities problems over the years (such as a nail that popped out of the Towson Center's old floor and had to be hammered back into place) but I've never seen two incidents quite like Saturday's occur back to back. And that's one reason I love college basketball so much: Just when you might foolishly start to think you've seen it all, something unimaginable happens.

The pace had picked up just before the delay, and the long break had surprisingly little noticeable impact on the players. Both sides were whistled for a number of fouls in the last three minutes, with Mason converting all 4 free throws while the Dukes made just 3 of 5 -- foreshadowing what would be a game-long problem for Madison. The Patriots took a modest 32-27 lead into the locker room.

The halftime show consisted of two parts. First, the new net apparently hadn't been installed correctly, and had to be taken down and re-done for a second time. Then, there was a contest for JMU students called Madison's Got Talent, for which students had submitted videos in advance, and three acts had been chosen to compete for a $1000 prize. The first contestant was a singer (one of the Madison cheerleaders) who drummed a beat on a plastic table with a paper cup while she sang (you had to be there), and the other two were guitar/vocal acts.

I was a little apprehensive as the second half began. Perhaps Mason's biggest problem this season has been maintaining consistency and effort for an entire game. Just two nights earlier, the green and gold had blown a 20-point first half lead in a loss to Drexel. All season, they've played lots of good halves of basketball games, only to let their guard down and fail to play a complete games. But for once, the second half began in a positive way, with Sherrod Wright assisting on baskets by big men Erik Copes and Jonathan Arledge on the Patriots first two possessions.

Juniors Wright (22 points and a career-high 11 rebounds) and Arledge (a career-high 19 points) became the offensive formula for the Patriots throughout the second half, as the visitors maintained their intensity and survived everything the Dukes threw at them.

It was only a matter of time before the Dukes made a run, and it began with 11 minutes remaining and the Patriots holding a 50-41 lead. A pair of Dukes free throws and a Charles Cook trey made it 50-45, before Core Edwards answered for Mason. Then Moore (25 points, 5 assists), showing no signs of his ankle injury, took over the game for the Dukes, scoring two traditional three-point plays and hitting a jumper from beyond the arc. All of a sudden, it was 56-55, with around 6 and a half minutes remaining, and George Mason was forced to call a time out.

Arledge converted a layup, and Wright followed with a layup-and-one to stretch the lead back to 6, but the Dukes came right back, with a pair of Cooke free throws and another Moore layup. And so it continued, with Mason clinging to a lead of one to six points. Madison closed the gap several times, but never managed to tie or take the lead. And yet, with their crowd behind them, it almost seemed inevitable to me that the home team would find a way to break through and take at least a momentary lead. There was just too much time left.

Then, with 1:40 to play and the score 65-62 in their favor, the Patriots got a big break.

Moore missed a three-point attempt, and the Dukes turned the rebound over. The ball found Wright on the break, who went up against Goins for the layup attempt. Goins swung his arm wildly in an apparent attempt to block the shot, but Wright had faked his shot, and the big man missed badly and caught the side of Wright's head instead, sending him crashing to the floor.

All attention was immediately on Wright, who lay motionless on the court for several seconds, before popping up uninjured, a smile slowly crossing his face. The officials consulted the monitor, and ruled the foul to be a flagrant-1 on Goins -- which meant two free throws and possession for Mason. The partisan crowd erupted in anger, their frustration with a game's worth of inconsistent officiating boiling over.

Because the Patriots' athletic trainer had come out to check on Wright, by rule he had to leave the game, and thus could not take his free throws. Head coach Paul Hewitt chose the silky-smooth Arledge instead, who sank both despite the dim from a furious Dukes student section mere feet away, and then scored a layup on the ensuing possession, giving the visitors a 7 point lead with a minute to play. From there, the game was effectively over, and Mason hung on for the 74-63 win, their 20th in the last 21 meetings in the rivalry.

In a strange way, it felt like the Hot Dog Game all over again, only without the absurdity of perfectly good food being thrown onto the court.


For the Dukes (13-11, 7-4 after Saturday), the biggest disappointment had to be their free throw shooting, as they missed 11 of their 28 attempts from the charity stripe -- which equaled the margin of victory in the game. Likewise, their promising freshman class of starters Taylor Bessick (4 fouls in 4 minutes), Ron Curry (0 points in 12 minutes), and Andre Nation, as well as reserve Charles Cooke, combined for only 11 points. The seniors -- Moore, Goins (13 points, 9 rebounds), and AJ Davis (9 points) -- can't carry the load on their own.

On the opposite side, the visiting Patriots (13-9, 6-4) played one of their most consistent games of the entire season, leading the entire game and withstanding a furious charge in the second half from the Dukes. Far too many times this season, Mason has taken 7 or 8 minutes or even an entire half off on either offense or defense. Saturday, the lapses were there, but they were limited in duration, and this allowed for a new kind of consistency.

The continued emergence of Jonathan Arledge as a complementary scorer to Sherrod Wright, a renewed emphasis on rebounding (35-25 advantage), good free throw shooting (23 of 26), and shortening their sometimes-lengthy lapses in attention on defense all played a role in the win, and are trends that need to continue for George Mason to be the contender everyone expected them to be this season in the CAA.

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