FAIRFAX, Va. — The ball left Bryon Allen’s hand and 9,840 green-and-gold-clad fans crept to their feet. As the ball reached the midpoint of its flight and started falling toward the basket, Allen already knew it was in.
A split second later, the rest of the Patriot Center knew it, too.
In a season-opening game that featured 22 turnovers and 16 lead changes, that shot wound up being the difference. It put George Mason up by three over in-state foe Virginia with less than one minute remaining Friday night, sending the sellout crowd into a frenzy and the Cavaliers into panic mode. Virginia’s Joe Harris scored 19 points but couldn’t get his final shot to go, and teammate Justin Anderson’s free throw also rattled out.
The Patriots won 63-59. The Cavaliers lost their first season-opener in 15 years.
They hung in there even without sophomores Erik Copes and Vaughn Gray, both of whom were suspended for the first three games of this season for violating undisclosed team rules. Big-time baskets from Allen and fellow guard Sherrod Wright made all the difference, and the two finished with 13 and 15 points, respectively.
Freshman Marko Gujanicic scored only 6 points but made a significant impact by collecting seven boards and stretching the floor.
It helped, of course, that the Patriots shot 68.4 percent from the floor in the second half and 50 percent from beyond the arc in the game.
“Late in the game, they made a couple of shots that we defended as well as we could,” Virginia head coach Tony Bennett said with a shrug. “There’s not a whole lot you can do on some of those.”
First it was Gujanicic, who jacked up a three in the closing seconds of the first half to give Mason the lead — and crucial momentum — entering halftime. Then it was the trio of Allen, Wright and Johnny Williams, all of whom made important buckets at the most important junctures.
No shot was more clutch than Allen’s heave in the final minute of the game. With the shot clock winding down, he stepped back behind the 3-point line and sent a high-arcing shot toward the basket in front of the George Mason student section.
“It was a big-time shot I made,” he said after the game. “It got everybody real excited and pushed us to the win.”
That shot and the loss that followed were difficult for Bennett and his young squad to stomach. Even with the absence of 2011 leading scorer Mike Scott, two injured guards and a starting lineup that featured three freshmen, he expected to leave the Patriot Center with a win. The lack of defensive intensity and 12 giveaways were points of emphasis after the game.
“I thought we had a little stretch when we ran some good offense, but then we had some costly turnovers,” Bennett said. “When you’re in a game that close, a possession-by-possession game, I don’t know if our young guys understand the value of a possession on the defensive end or on the offensive end. And those were a couple costly turnovers.”
A tough loss for Virginia proved to be a signature win for George Mason, a program that always is on the cusp of making a run in the NCAA Tournament. Hewitt was asked if Friday’s win could potentially make a difference when the tournament’s at-large seeds are being determined in March.