CHARLOTTESVILLE — Virginia's defense owns a well-earned reputation for extending possessions and generally making life miserable for opponents. It certainly doesn't need much help.
George Mason provided just that Tuesday, committing 20 turnovers en route to a 68-48 loss to the Cavaliers before 8,954 at John Paul Jones Arena.
"We just didn't play clean enough with the ball to win this game," coach Paul Hewitt said.
It was more than enough to cost the Patriots (6-3) their best remaining chance to place a stamp on their nonconference resume. It also didn't take long for problems to surface in what would become the first time the Patriots failed to reach 50 points since Feb. 27, 2010, against Northeastern.
Mason struggled to defend guard Sammy Zeglinski, who slipped free to hit four 3-pointers while scoring a game-high 18 points for the Cavaliers (8-1). Yet the greater issues were on offense, where the Patriots' backcourt simply did not function well for most of the night.
The three starting guards — Bryon Allen, Vertrail Vaughns and Sherrod Wright — combined for one assist and seven turnovers.
Mason's possessions, though, were frequently short-circuited well before a turnover arrived.
"We didn't do a good job of setting up," Hewitt said. "When your wings are stopping at the top of the key extended or foul line extended, you have problems — instead of running down to the corners and setting up. We were stopping at that Wells Fargo sign all night. I wrote it on the board: Wells Fargo. In the second half, you could see it was a different thing. We started moving the ball."
By then, it was too late. The Cavaliers built a 33-22 lead at the break and quickly pushed the lead to 19. Against a team that shortens the game — Mason had roughly 60 possessions — that deficit is exceptionally difficult to erase.
It becomes even more difficult when Virginia is especially committed to defense. The Cavaliers have yet to surrender 60 points this season, and Mason was never a serious threat to reverse that trend.
"I feel like we disrupted it a lot," Virginia guard Jontel Evans said. "Their wings were penetrating on us, but I don't think they got a lot of big plays from their point guards out there. We were just playing how we're capable of playing."
It's clearly quite good. Virginia heads into a 12-day layoff for exams off to its best start since 2004-05, which was also the last year the currently unranked Cavaliers cracked the top 20 of the Associated Press poll.
Meanwhile, the Patriots already appear unlikely to replicate their resume of a year ago, when they earned an at-large bid to the NCAA tournament. Virginia was the lone power conference team on Mason's schedule, though a handful of interesting contest — at College of Charleston and a mid-February Bracket Buster game in Fairfax — remain.
"We didn't play as well as we could," senior forward Mike Morrison said. "We're disappointed we lost, but it's a long season."
Plenty can and almost certainly will change. Mason got freshman guard Corey Edwards back after a two-game absence because of a concussion, and he produced four assists and four turnovers in 19 scoreless minutes. The Patriots are also a game away from the return of senior guard Andre Cornelius, who was suspended after an offseason arrest and later pled guilty to credit card fraud.
The Patriots figure to evolve once Cornelius' suspension is lifted and Edwards is fully re-integrated into the offense. They just won't do so with the quality win they hoped to get against a big-name, in-state opponent.
"We felt we let an opportunity get by tonight, and they had a lot to do with it," Hewitt said. "But this is a veteran team and that's why we have a chance to be good not going to hang our heads at all."
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