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George Mason stating its case as CAA’s best

- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 8, 2012

One strong week in January didn't win a CAA championship for George Mason.

It did, nonetheless, illustrate the Patriots are as capable as anyone of eventually claiming the conference crown.

Mason (12-4, 4-0 CAA) emerged from three games in six days as the lone team unbeaten in league play, establishing a knack for grinding through methodical games when needed.

It got a sizzling day against William & Mary from guard Andre Cornelius, a welcome sign after the senior was suspended for 10 games. It won at Old Dominion for the first time since 2004. It snapped Georgia State's 11-game winning streak even though leading scorer Ryan Pearson didn't make a field goal.

There was a little bit of everything for the Patriots, who have won 18 consecutive regular-season conference games dating to last season.

"I think we've learned that once we click and play well together [on] offense and defense and stick together and fight through toughness, we'll be tough to beat down the stretch," forward Mike Morrison said after Saturday's 61-58 defeat of Georgia State. "It's going to be really hard to beat us."

It's a shift, perhaps just a subtle one, from the team that opened the season an unremarkable 7-4 and was routed on its home floor by Duquesne on Dec. 21 in Cornelius' first game back.

Cornelius' return provided an extra option, and throughout Mason's five straight wins, a variety of players have provided a boost on different nights.

On Saturday, it was sophomore guard Vertrail Vaughns (17 points), who busted Georgia State's ever-shifting zone defenses with a combination of outside shooting and drives to the basket. Meanwhile, freshman forward Erik Copes played significant minutes in the first half, and freshman point guard Corey Edwards spelled the foul-plagued Bryon Allen for extended stretches in the second half.

Perhaps the steadiest player of late is Morrison, who rattled off three straight double-digit scoring nights for only the second time in his career and turned in a 14-point, 15-rebound outing against Georgia State he gleefully referred to as "Ryan Pearson numbers."

It doesn't mean Mason is entirely consistent. Sophomore guard Sherrod Wright was scoreless Saturday and has just 11 points in his past four games. Coach Paul Hewitt effectively shrunk his rotation to eight players, with guard Vaughn Gray making only a three-minute cameo and forward Jonathan Arledge not playing.

"I think we're a talented team and a deep team," Hewitt said. "We got a big lift from Corey tonight coming off the bench. The thing I have to do and the coaching staff has to do is keep the guys up. Jon Arledge doesn't play tonight. Sherrod's been struggling the last few games. We have to get those guys playing well again because you never know when it's going to be a night [they're needed] to help us."

Even if the Patriots aren't perfect, they must be pleased with a three-win week to start the bulk of league play, a feat only UNC Wilmington could match. Two road games, visits to Drexel (9-5, 1-2 entering Sunday's late game against Virginia Commonwealth) on Thursday and James Madison (7-7, 1-3) two days later, are on the horizon.

It's a good start for Mason — but as it well knows, it is just a start.

"We're not comfortable," Vaughns said. "We can do more. There's a lot more games out there."

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