- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 15, 2009

Having limited practice Friday to 45 minutes before sending his team to the aquatic center to relax in Jacuzzis, George Mason men’s basketball coach Jim Larranaga knew the Patriots would have enough energy to face Northeastern on Saturday.

But only when Larranaga urged his players to slow down did they begin executing their offense.

A dismal first half turned into an efficient second half, allowing George Mason to defeat Northeastern 64-53 before a season-high 9,840 at Patriot Center. Against the Colonial Athletic Association’s top defensive team, the Patriots shot 54.5 percent in the second half to remain undefeated at home (12-0).

“The place was rocking, and I knew our guys would respond to that kind of energy and enthusiasm in the arena,” Larranaga said. “We were playing so darn hard, we couldn’t make a shot early. When you’re working so hard, you can’t calm down. Defense is about effort, offense is about skill and, to execute a skill, you have to be more under control than we were.”

The Patriots (17-8, 10-5) got their typical balanced scoring. John Vaughan scored 16 points, followed by Cam Long’s 14 and Darryl Monroe’s 10. Vaughan hit two 3-pointers during a game-turning 15-3 run early in the second half and also helped limit Matt Janning, Northeastern’s leading scorer, to 5-for-13 shooting.

George Mason moved a game behind CAA co-leaders Virginia Commonwealth and Northeastern. More importantly, the Patriots remain in position for one of the four coveted opening-round byes in the CAA tournament, which would prevent them from having to win four games in four days to reach the NCAA tournament.

The Patriots entered having lost five of their previous seven games.

“When we were 7-0 [in the CAA], I said the schedule really favored us,” Larranaga said. “I knew it was going to be a lot tougher on us in the second [half]. … If you’re in the hunt for one of those four byes, you’re going to play hard and fight for that until the bitter end.”

Only George Mason’s first-half play was bitter Saturday. The Patriots’ 17 first-half points were their fewest of the season and they had as many fouls (eight) as field goals and four scoring droughts of at least two minutes.

“In the first half, we were one or two passes and taking a shot we didn’t like,” Vaughan said. “[In the second half], we really wanted to come out and keep our defensive mindset. On offense, we made a little change and adjustment. We understood that if we kept rotating the ball and found the open man, we could get good shots.”

The Patriots’ improved efficiency was on display from the start of the second half. Keyed by two 3-pointers from Vaughan, George Mason scored on 10 of its first 13 possessions. When the Patriots’ drought from the perimeter ended, it opened things up inside for Monroe and reserve Mike Morrison, who added nine points, one block and a monster dunk.

“One of the whole keys was Mike Morrison,” Larranaga said. “He came off the bench with lots of energy. He was really attacking their defense. … He’s made a lot of progress throughout the season, and it’s coming at a perfect time for us.”

Two free throws from Morrison stretched the Patriots’ lead to 39-29, but Northeastern used a small run to cut the lead to five points before Long’s three-point play and an inside bucket by Monroe pushed the advantage back to double digits.

In the last eight minutes, Northeastern would get no closer than seven points. The Huskies’ comeback attempt was thwarted by 3-for-21 shooting from 3-point territory.

“Ultimately, the difference in the game was their defensive pressure,” Northeastern coach Bill Coen said. “They really challenged us on the perimeter, and we had very few quality looks at the basket the whole game and you have to credit their defense for making that happen.”

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