RICHMOND, Va. – In basketball, timing can be everything.
On Sunday afternoon in the semifinals of the Colonial Athletic Association tournament, George Mason couldn’t have picked a more inopportune moment in its season to come out completely lifeless in virtually every aspect of the game right from the opening tip.
By the time Jonathan Arledge broke free for an uncontested dunk with 11:48 left in the first half, the Patriots had committed eight turnovers, missed their first eight field goals, and given up six Virginia Commonwealth three-pointers en route to a 27-4 deficit that would creep up to as high as 28 on two occasions.
VCU’s incredibly powerful knockout punch in front of a mostly partisan sellout crowd of 11,200 at the Richmond Coliseum eventually proved to be too much as George Mason’s comeback bid ended with a 74-64 loss.
While Rams (27-6) advanced to take on top-seeded Drexel in the conference finals on Monday night, George Mason (24-9) will have to wait and see if post season basketball awaits them in another tournament such as the NIT, CBI, or CIT.
“We weren’t ready to start,” George Mason Coach Paul Hewitt said about the 32-4 hole his team dug themselves.
“That falls on me. When they started hitting those threes we should have made some adjustments.”
Bradford Burgess (20 points) and Troy Daniels (17 points) led the way as the Rams hit on their first eight attempts from beyond the arc.
But then something happened.
George Mason mounted a methodical comeback with a few noticeable in game adjustments.
Mike Morrison, not CAA Player of the Year Ryan Pearson, became the focal point of the Patriots offense. It was behind Morrison’s steady inside play that saw George Mason narrow the margin to a workable margin of 48-32 heading into the halftime break.
“One thing I credit my team with is, no matter how much we were down we just kept fighting,” said Morrison, who scored eleven of his team-high 20 points during that opening half as the Patriots began to chip away at that VCU lead.
Another change that began before halftime was Andre Cornelius switching over to point guard duties.
Cornelius responded by scoring 15 points on 3-of-6 shooting from distance in a season-high 34 minutes. It’s a number that would have been even higher had he not come out momentarily in the second half to work with a trainer.
“Andre Cornelius also did a great job of using the middle of the floor because they stretch out so much and deny the pass to the wings.”
“That kind of tempered their aggressiveness and we started getting shots inside.”
In the end VCU made just enough plays to keep George Mason at arm’s length but dodged a few bullets as the Patriots missed two opportunities to cut the lead down with the Rams holding on to a 64-58 advantage with under three minutes left in the game.
Vertail Vaughns (five points, 1-of-7 shooting) shot an air ball in front of the George Mason bench while Arledge missed badly from the opposite side of the court after hitting just two of his previous nine attempts from that distance all season.
VCU’s ability to capitalize on transition baskets was probably the difference. The Rams held a 24-4 edge in points off of turnovers and held a 10-0 advantage in fast break points.
“We feel like if we don’t have live ball turnovers, we are a great defensive team,” Coach Hewitt said about the biggest difference in what ultimately became a close game down the stretch.
Jonathan Arledge made the most of his career-high 29 minutes by posting an impressive double-double of eleven points and ten rebounds. The sophomore forward didn’t even get off the bench when George Mason defeated VCU 62-61 on a last second shot on Valentine’s Day.
In a game that left many questions still unanswered, the biggest mystery has to be the disappearing act of Pearson.
The senior forward who was brilliant most of the season and deserving of his conference player of the year award scored just ten points in two games.
“We didn’t execute well in some sets where we tried to get him the ball, but some of that falls on Ryan as well,” Coach Hewitt said about Pearson’s disappointing tournament.
Patriots Notes: George Mason dropped to 0-6 all-time against VCU in the CAA tournament. Sunday’s loss marked the fourth straight year that the Patriots fell to the Rams in postseason play.