Wednesday night at Towson, George Mason looked like the Patriots of old.
Starting a three-guard lineup for the first time this season, George Mason combated the frontcourt power of the Tigers with skill and quickness. With Corey Edwards, Sherrod Wright, and Bryon Allen doing a reasonable impersonation of former teammates Ryan Cornelius, Cam Long, and Luke Hancock, the Patriots matched their season high in scoring, beating the Tigers for the 20th straight time, 77-67, at Towson Center Arena.
Last month Allen (season-high 16 points, six assists) lost the starting point guard job. But on Wednesday he started for forward Anali Okoloji, who opened the game on the bench for the first time this season. The strategy sparked a sluggish offense as the Patriots generated better ball movement and quality shots. George Mason shot 49.1 percent from the floor as 20 of its 26 baskets came on assists.
“The lineup change was made to try to facilitate more offense,” George Mason coach Paul Hewitt said. “Bryon has been playing really well, splitting his time between the wing and the point guard. We tried it full-time in practice two days ago. It looked good. We said go with it — 77 points as a result.”
Towson (10-11, 5-3) has yet to beat George Mason as a member of the CAA. The last Tigers victory over the Patriots came in 1992, when Towson was the regular season champion of the Big South Conference.
But few of Mason’s 20 straight wins over Towson was as hard-earned. The Patriots had to overcome a 44-34 rebounding disadvantage and 18 points off the bench from guard Rafriel Guthrie (Cardozo High).
The Tigers might have won were it not for an off-night from Georgetown transfer Jarrelle Benimon (16 points, eight rebounds), who missed 10 of 15 shots and saw his six-game double-double streak come to an end.
“For the first time this year, he let his frustration get to him,” Towson coach Pat Skerry said. “He took bad shots, was really bad defensively, and he hurt us at the foul line … He took some horrific, horiffic shots.”
While Benimon’s CAA player of the year candidacy was damaged, Wright only enhanced his. The 6-4 junior had 24 points, eight rebounds, and four assists, with nine of his points coming in the final 6:29.Wright has been the Patriots’ constant, scoring 19 or more points in 10 of his last 11 games. The three-guard alignment did nothing to disturb his comfortable groove.
“We got a lot of fast-break points. The defensive pressure was great,” Wright said. “We got some leak outs and moved the ball well.”
George Mason also got stellar work from emerging 6-8 freshman Marko Gujanicic (12 points, nine rebounds), who guarded Benimon much of the night, leading a defense that forced 16 turnovers and limited Towson to 37.5 percent shooting overall and 19 percent (4 of 21) from the arc.
But watching his offense come alive was the most rewarding part of the night for Hewitt.
“I think we’re a team that’s supposed to score 75 to 85,” Hewitt said. “It’s probably my fault. I should have made this change maybe earlier to put more ball-handling and passing out on the floor. We’ll see. It might have been a fluke.”
Mason took control late in the first half as it scored on six straight possessions to expand a two-point lead to 11. Odly enough, the demoted Okoloji (two points, six minutes) started it with a layup. Wright followed with four quick points, and Allen made a pretty reverse-layup three-point-play. A put-back by Gujanicic made it 37-26. From there, George Mason never trailed.
After a season that has often been a half-court grind, it was a fun night in the open floor for Edwards (three points, five assists, two steals), Wright, and most of all, Allen as he reclaimed his starting job. It was a win that felt like two years ago when Cornelius, Long, and Hancock often overwhelmed teams with their cohesion and skills.
“Those guys did a great job when we were [first] here,” Allen said. “But we’re here now. They’re watching us. We gotta continue the legacy.”