The way George Mason played Wednesday night in the school’s intimate volleyball gym before a sellout crowd of 1,280, the Patriots should consider a return appearance there in the deciding game of the College Basketball Invitational.
But on to the Patriot Center it will be for George Mason (22-15) and Santa Clara (25-12) in the final of their best of three series Friday night.
If only the Patriots could bottle the high school atmosphere in which they thrived in a 73-66 victory. With junior Sherrod Wright (19 points, 10 rebounds) bouncing back from a terrible performance, junior Bryon Allen (15 points) sparking the Patriots’ fast start, and GMU limiting Santa Clara to 37.5 percent shooting and forcing 14 turnovers, the hosts led all the way in perhaps their most complete victory of the season.
“I felt like I was back in high school,” Allen said.
“I didn’t expect it to be that loud,” added Wright. “Good atmosphere, good environment.”
The noise in the small gym in the Recreation and Athletic Complex fueled a defense that held Monday’s star, Kevin Foster (16 points) without a field goal in the first half. The 6-2 senior, who scored 28 points in an 81-73 victory in game one, hit six of 15 shots from the floor. When he opened the second half with an ice-breaking 3-pointer, it sparked a seven-point run, Santa Clara’s best of the game.
But with the Patriots crashing the boards, driving the lane for high-percentage shots, and forcing the Broncos to fire away from the perimeter, they quickly resumed control and then held off a late charge by the Broncos.
“That’s why we got into this event — to get these games. Now we’re going to play a sixth [postseason] game, more reps, more situations,” George Mason coach Paul Hewitt said. “We’re playing our best ball of the year.”
Other contributors for George Mason were sophomores Erik Copes (10 points, nine rebounds) and Corey Edwards (eight points) and freshman Patrick Holloway (nine points). Their offense helped compensate for the absence of junior Jonathan Arledge, who played only 10 minutes as he accumulated as many fouls (four) as points. The Patriots took advantage of their opportunities to run and limited those of the Broncos, out-scoring Santa Clara 12-0 on the fast-break.
“We got out in transition and had fewer breakdowns defensively,” said Hewitt, who was especially pleased with how George Mason zealously defended the perimeter, limiting Santa Clara to five 3-pointers on 25 attempts. On Monday, Santa Clara hit 10 of 24 attempts from beyond the arc, with five of the makes by Foster.
“We couldn’t get caught ball-watching,” Hewitt said. “I think we only had two of those tonight. But much better than the last game — get out and contest. Obviously we didn’t want them to take 25, but at least they were contested.”
George Mason overwhelmed Santa Clara from the start as Copes hit a short jumper and Allen followed with a strip and a breakaway dunk and another fast-break score for a 6-0 lead that the Patriots never relinquished. Broncos coach Kerry Keating admitted that his team was ill-prepared for the unique atmosphere.
“[The band] can’t be any louder than it was — three feet away from our bench,” said Keating, who added that he talked with former George Mason assistants, now at Miami, who warned him about GMU bandleader Doc Nix. “They said the bandleader was the most important guy in this whole gym. It was fun. I enjoyed it. Unfortunately we weren’t able to close it out.”
In the first half, 3-pointers by Wright and Edwards and traditional 3-point-plays by reserves Anali Okoloji and Paris Bennett sparked GMU to a 16-point bulge. Early in the second half, Santa Clara whittled the margin to six points before Holloway answered with five straight points, allowing the Patriots to resume control. A late surge by the Broncos cut the lead to 70-66, but Brandon Clark (10 points) missed a free throw and a layup in the final 16 seconds, forcing a deciding third game in a much larger, but much less-intimate setting.