The Washington Times - November 11, 2011, 11:25PM

Sherrod Wright’s first game in more than a year and a half reminded George Mason just what it was missing.

The sophomore guard scored 17 points and provided a pair of crucial offensive rebounds and putbacks as Mason outlasted Rhode Island 92-90 in overtime Friday in its season opener at the Patriot Center.

SEE RELATED:


Ryan Pearson had 28 points and 12 rebounds for the Patriots, who trailed by as many as 10 before rallying to win new coach Paul Hewitt’s debut. Rhode Island’s  Orion Outerbridge missed a 3-pointer as time expired in the extra session.

“To see that last one rattle out, I just looked back at [assistant] Mike Wells and said ‘I came back for this?’” joked Hewitt, who took over the Patriots less than two months after he was fired at Georgia Tech. “No, I’m glad I’m here. I’m absolutely thrilled I have a group of young guys that have been very cooperative and are working very hard.”

That includes Wright, a 6-foot-4 guard who missed all of last year rehabilitating a shoulder injury but already looks like he could be a significant factor after his prolonged absence.

While seniors Pearson and Mike Morrison offer Hewitt a stable frontcourt, the backcourt looked less certain entering the season. Guard Andre Cornelius won’t return from a suspension until Dec. 21. Sophomore Bryon Allen and Vertrail Vaughns made their first career starts Friday. Corey Edwards is a freshman.

Wright is hardly a veteran, owning one start and a 5.5-point average two years ago. But there were promising moments as a freshman, and there’s plenty of eagerness after playing a team-high (and career-high) 39 minutes against the Rams.

“It was a great experience,” Wright said. “The first couple minutes, I couldn’t believe I was out there. It’s been a year and some change, and I’ve just been waiting to get back on the court.”

It looked like it at times. Wright wasn’t entirely polished, but authored a pair of crucial rebounds as Mason complemented its pressure with some rugged interior play.

It was Wright who snared an errant free throw from teammate Erik Copes, turning the disappointment  of two misses at the foul line into a basket to close within 66-65. Mason would never trail by more than two the rest of the way.

Wright also wrested away an offensive rebound before putting one back with 39.8 seconds to go, providing the Patriots an 80-77 cushion that disappeared moments later when Jonathan Holton drilled a 3-pointer to force overtime.

“Without those rebounds, who knows where the game would have been?” Pearson said. “At his size and his skill, he’s really going to help us now and for the rest of the season.”

Wright wasn’t finished, adding a fast-break layup to bump Mason’s lead to 91-88 in overtime. But the offensive rebounds were the most noticeable part of his return.

“They were very important,” Wright said. “I saw we needed a tough basket and that we had to hit the boards. Coach was stressing to me to get on the boards a lot. He said I was ball-watching a lot, so he said ‘Protect the boards, at your size you can get a lot of rebounds.’ I was just concentrating on going after the boards. It was a huge play.”

It wasn’t a perfect day for Wright, who showed some rust from his time off. Then again, the Patriots hardly pieced together an optimal performance before 6,644 patrons who collectively exhaled while Hewitt wiped his forehead after Outerbridge’s potential game-winner missed.

Mason struggled with inbound plays, didn’t hit a 3-pointer until more than 34 minutes into the game and could do little to stop Rhode Island senior guard Jamal Wilson from scoring 38 points – far more than his previous career-best of 14 points.

There was foul trouble – Morrison’s night ended in regulation – and extended droughts against an opponent picked 10th in the 14-team Atlantic 10. But there were also stretches when the Patriots efficiently pitched it inside to Pearson.

He, of course, is Mason’s most-known quantity. Others will need to blossom, and Wright showed he might just be the guy to emerge in the Patriots’ unsettled backcourt.

“I couldn’t wait to have him back,” Pearson said. “He couldn’t come back at a better time. He’s going to be that guy that we need on the perimeter when it’s time to get a big basket. When we have to space the floor, he can take guys off the dribble, he can post up. He’s real versatile.”

Friday just happened to be a reminder of it.

Patrick Stevens