Forget that George Mason faltered in the first half. Forget that William and Mary blew a 13-point lead in the second half. This game, like so many others this season, came down to the final seconds.
With 14 seconds on the clock, junior center Tim Rusthoven found a wide-open lane under the basket and tied the game at 58, giving a frantic, up-and-down game a bit of clarity. The momentum shifts and big shots scored during the previous 39:46 faded into the background. Only one thing mattered: nearly 40 minutes of basketball came down to one last George Mason possession.
With the shot clock off and the game hanging in the balance, George Mason guard Bryon Allen drove into the paint, ran under the basket, and kicked the ball out to forward Erik Copes. Copes, who was initially guarded by junior forward Kyle Gaillard, suddenly found himself opposed by sophomore guard Marcus Thornton. Copes exploited the mismatch and drained a silky-smooth jumper to send a raucous Patriot Center crowd of 6,215 to its feet with a 60-58 George Mason victory.
“From where I sat, it looked just like a screen, roll and replace. I don’t really know exactly what happened defensively,” head coach Tony Shaver said. “Obviously he was a little open right there, but we’d like to see Copes taking a jump shot instead of a lot of other weapons that they have.”
After Copes’ shot went in, the Tribe (12-15, 6-10 CAA) had just enough time for a final inbound, but the Hail Mary heave went awry, snapping the College’s three-game winning streak.
The Tribe held a 13-point lead with 11 minutes, 14 seconds remaining in the game but only scored one point during the next 10 minutes, allowing the Patriots (17-11, 10-6 CAA) to creep back into the contest.
After shooting 47.8 percent in the first half, the College went ice cold in the second, shooting 28 percent from the field. The Tribe shooters took a few contested shots in the second half, but a barrage of missed open threes and free throws doomed the team down the stretch.
“We had a couple good shots that we missed; other times we let their defense take us out of our offense,” Rusthoven said.
The College was able to keep two of George Mason’s formidable guards, Sherrod Wright and Bryon Allen, largely quiet, but it was a third guard, reserve Patrick Holloway, who keyed the Mason comeback.
Holloway finished with 15 points and scored all five of George Mason’s three-pointers, including two crucial three-pointers in the second half. Holloway nailed a three from the right corner to put the Patriots up 51-50 to cap the comeback with just 4:36 remaining.
“I was disappointed twice that we didn’t guard him tightly enough,” Shaver said. “He’s a player on the scouting report — our kids know that we want to make him put it on the floor, and he got two open looks. … I think him making some shots allowed them to open up and relax a little bit on the offensive end.”
With the Patriots back in the game, the College easily could have faltered, but Shaver’s group continued to fight.
George Mason forward Jonathan Arledge sank two free throws at the 1:28 mark to put the Patriots up by five, but the Tribe responded.
Sophomore guard Marcus Thornton sank a three-pointer on the other end to cut the Patriot lead to two. George Mason’s Marko Gujanicic made a free throw, and Thornton landed two before Allen was fouled on the other end with the Patriots up 57-56.
Allen missed one of his free throws, opening the door for the College. With the shot clock off, Thornton found Rusthoven under the basket for an easy layup, tying the game at 58-58 with just 14 seconds to go.
“I’ve been over here for 10 years now, and I’ve seen a lot of teams crumble in that situation, and our guys didn’t crumble, and that’s really important for me, and it’s really important for them,” Shaver said. “Maybe a month ago we wouldn’t make that stand. We didn’t get a lot of breaks down the stretch, we didn’t get a lot of whistles, we didn’t make a lot of free throws, we didn’t make a lot of open shots, but we stood our ground and tied that ballgame up down the stretch, and that was really important to me.”
Thornton, who was instrumental during the College’s late rally, led the squad with 22 points on a 7 of 16 shooting night.
Rusthoven scored 10 and junior guard Brandon Britt, who played a major role in the College’s three-game winning streak, struggled Saturday with just seven points.
Despite the loss, Shaver was encouraged by his team’s late rally and heart — a trait that will serve the Tribe well in next month’s Colonial Athletic Association tournament. As of Tuesday, the College holds the No. 6 seed in the conference tournament.
“To come out here and play that hard on the road and to not win – it’s tough,” Shaver said. “We’ve had a lot of games this year that way, three double-overtime games. The key to me is that our basketball team is playing with a lot more confidence right now and we’ve improved immensely and we play with great heart.”