The Washington Times - March 16, 2011, 09:42AM

In the latter stages of George Mason’s 16-game winning streak in the second half of the regular season, a potentially startling trend emerged.

The Patriots, as good as they were at finishing off games, were making things a bit more difficult by not starting them well.

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The first 20 minutes against Northeastern and Georgia State were slogs. A CAA quarterfinal, also against Georgia State, required an extended rally.

And then there was the CAA semifinals, when the Patriots (26-6) fell behind 39-25 at halftime and never closed within two possessions in the second half against Virginia Commonwealth.

“We’ve been trying to figure out what’s been going on with these slow starts,” senior guard Isaiah Tate said. “Every game, we’ve been like ‘Hey, guys, no slow starts. Let’s get out there and get after it.’ I guess all we can really do is, it starts on the defensive end. At the end of the day, you can control your effort and intensity. As long as we come out and focus ourselves defensively, I think the offense will pick up.”

That is Mason’s hope as it enters Friday’s NCAA tournament game against ninth-seeded Villanova in Cleveland. And it’s a logical starting point: The Patriots gave up 1.27 points per possession against VCU, their least efficient defensive outing of the season.

Game tempo has a bit to do with Mason’s sluggish starts, too. The Patriots have not surpassed their season average of 65 possessions in their last six games, and that was especially apparent when Georgia State tried to slow things down.

“In the last two regular season games and the tournament – so the last four games – we have not gotten off to the kind of start we would like,” coach Jim Larranaga said. “The two last regular season games, I would say it was the opponent’s style; they played slow. In the tournament, we played we one of them again, Georgia State, and they came out like VCU did – totally on fire.”

Perhaps some time off will help. Mason hasn’t played in 10 days, and both Larranaga and his players seemed refreshed as they wrapped up their penultimate practice in Fairfax before the NCAA tournament on Tuesday.

If nothing else, it allowed the Patriots to place the grind of the regular season in the past.

“You can’t play an opponent one way and think the next game is going to be the same way,” senior guard Cam Long said. “You have to think something completely different. So even though we had some bad starts these last couple games, I’m not expecting that to happen the next game.”

Nor does the ever-optimistic Larranaga, who nonetheless realizes the importance of his team not creating an early deficit when postseason play tips off.

“I’m concerned, because you can’t waste possessions – defensively or offensively – in the tournament,” Larranaga said. “They’re just too valuable. I’m just trying to put in the guys’ minds to come out fast and hard.”

Patrick Stevens