George Mason aware it must be tougher

Lesser teams are staying in games

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Another close game was unfolding against a second-division CAA team for George Mason, a routine occurrence over the past month. It was as good a time as any for Patriots coach Paul Hewitt to have an epiphany.

It didn’t matter if Mason spent the entire season with at least a share of first place.

It didn’t matter if the Patriots won an NCAA tournament game a year ago.

It didn’t matter if one of the conference’s pre-eminent programs has won 17 straight league games in Fairfax.

Hofstra — and anyone else in the bottom half of the CAA — wasn’t afraid of the Patriots, simple as that. That Mason would eventually dominate the final six minutes Wednesday to create separation in a 72-62 victory at Patriot Center was in some ways an afterthought.

The Patriots’ penchant for avoiding contact helped earn them another tight contest.

“We’ve been talking about technique the whole year, about boxing out and sprinting to screens,” Hewitt said. “Then you get down to it that they’re not afraid of us. They just run through us. At some point, you have to make a stand. That’s what we talked about at halftime. You just have to make a physical stand.”

And so they did. A litmus test of whether Hewitt’s exhortations will stick comes Saturday when the Patriots (20-6, 12-2 CAA) visit UNC Wilmington (9-15, 5-9).

“Coach gave us the big-time speech that we have to be more physical, and they’re not afraid of us, and I feel like all of us locked in as guards and got some rebounds,” guard Sherrod Wright said. “The bigs started boxing out more, we started boxing out more. Once we become more physical as a team from the start, we won’t have these problems all the time.”

Hewitt doesn’t want the Patriots to engage in unsportsmanlike play, a point he was quick to emphasize. But with the balance of the schedule shrinking, he also must know the exploitation of Mason’s flaws will have more substantial consequences over the next month.

Those shortcomings exist for a team still tied with Drexel and Virginia Commonwealth at the top of the conference. Mason continues to struggle to put away teams such as the Pride (8-18, 2-12), whose first deficit of more than six points came with 1:40 to play.

Physicality remains a concern as well. Forwards Mike Morrison and Ryan Pearson combined for four rebounds Wednesday, their lowest collective total of the season. But it goes beyond the established starters; in the 5:49 both were on the bench in the first half Wednesday, Mason scored five points total and none in the paint.

Little wonder the Patriots’ recent issues quickly crystallized in Hewitt’s mind.

“I’ve been trying to figure out why some of these teams play with us,” Hewitt said. “No disrespect meant, but there’s no fear because we don’t play physical back. People play physical with us and we don’t. I don’t mean anything dirty or emotional. Just set solid screens, box out. Our rebounding has come around. We saw that against Old Dominion [on Saturday]. But the first half, we were afraid to touch anyone.”

Whenever that’s the case, opponents won’t be cautious. At this point, it is a truth Mason must be well aware of; its coach certainly is.

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