- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 19, 2009

George Mason was ready for its most physical game of the season.

The Patriots just had to be sure they got in the last punch.

Darryl Monroe did just that, tipping in Dre Smith’s missed layup with 7.5 seconds left as the Patriots escaped with a 49-48 defeat of visiting Drexel on Wednesday.

“It was a battle,” senior guard John Vaughan said. “We knew coming in, [coach Jim Larranaga] told us it was going to be a street fight. We couldn’t show up for a finesse-type team.”

With both teams tied and a game out of first place, it was a de facto Colonial Athletic Association regular-season title elimination game. With two teams entering the week a game up, Wednesday night’s winner figured to have a better chance at a first-round bye in next month’s conference tournament.

Monroe scored 15 points for George Mason (18-8, 11-5), which moved into a share of second place with Northeastern.

It was, in some ways, an improbable victory for the Patriots. They shot 34 percent from the floor and went 11-for-21 from the free throw line. Yet they still escaped with their second one-point defeat this season of the Dragons (14-11, 10-6).

Drexel matched its largest lead of the second half when Scott Rodgers drove for a layup with 1:03 remaining. The Patriots managed to close within a point when Monroe made a pair of free throws with 42.2 seconds left.

George Mason fouled with 35.9 seconds remaining, and the Dragons’ Leon Spencer missed the front end of a one-and-one. The Patriots came out of a timeout and twice tried to work it inside. Smith’s shot bounced off the rim, but Monroe was there to deposit the rebound.

“Share the ball and attack the basket,” Monroe recalled hearing on the bench during the timeout before George Mason’s final possession. “[Assistant] coach [Chris] Caputo told me to attack the offensive board, and that’s what I did.”

But there was still the matter of Drexel’s last chance. Rodgers raced down the right side of the court, switching from his right side to his left as he fumbled the ball into the paint. Spencer picked it up and missed an off-balance heave to seal the victory for George Mason.

“That last shot, I was holding my breath,” Larranaga said.

The taut affair featured a dozen lead changes in the second half, but it came only after George Mason struggled for much of the first 20 minutes.

The Patriots bumbled through the opening minutes, missing their first six shots as Drexel built a 14-3 lead. But George Mason gradually drew closer and used a 7-0 run in the final 3:52 of the half to tie it at the break.

After freshman Michael Morrison (eight points) helped the Patriots erase the deficit, things remained close the rest of the way. It was a one-possession game for the final 23:15, with only a few chances existing to stretch things out.

Neither team shot well, permeating the floor with a sense of frustration, and Larranaga wryly observed, “I ended up going to a wrestling match.” In the end, Mason didn’t a metal chair or an unexpected twist to secure a much-needed victory, just a few solid plays in the final minute.

“Pretty doesn’t matter,” Larranaga said. “The ‘W’ is what matters. We’re battling with a bunch of other teams for a bye in the first round. This is a game we were even with that opponent, and now we’re one game ahead.”

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