Bucknell suffered a serious consequence for trying to shut down in the final minute of Wednesday’s game at George Mason. The Patriots didn’t when they attempted to limit the Bison’s star perimeter player.
And that, in a nutshell, is why the Patriots remained perfect at home this season after outlasting Bucknell 61-57.
Ryan Pearson scored 16 points to lead Mason (5-2), but it was the attention paid to the senior that enabled the Patriots to collect their third straight victory.
Bucknell (5-3) frequently doubled Pearson and dared Mason to beat it in other ways. The Patriots obliged, both at the start of the game and at the end.
“That helped a lot because Bucknell lacked on the help defense,” guard Bryon Allen said. “They doubled Ryan and the weak side was always wide open. All you had to do was pass it for layups that were wide open. That really helped a lot of guys get involved in the game.”
It was especially true for Allen, who slid back into the starting lineup after a two-game hiatus. Freshman Corey Edwards, who supplanted the sophomore for the starting nod, suffered a concussion in practice and coach Paul Hewitt is uncertain when he will return.
Allen’s play erased some of the pain of Edwards’ absence. He scored five quick points to open the game, then settled into a turnover-free performance that covered a career-best 39 minutes.
His most crucial moment came in the final minute. With Pearson again drawing notice from the Bison, he passed it out to forward Mike Morrison, who in turn spotted Allen in the lane. Morrison’s pass set up a layup, and the Patriots took a 59-56 lead with 34.9 seconds left.
“We didn’t want to let that kid beat us,” Bucknell coach Dave Paulsen said. “We got it out of his hands. It was a good two, three seconds later and we just didn’t rotate back. That’s pressure situation, and we had some slippage. That obviously stung.”
It was hardly over, though, even after an exchange of free throws. Mason dedicated much of its night to stopping Bucknell guard Bryson Johnson, who had 15 3-pointers over his last two games and 22 on the season.
It created chances for Cameron Ayers, who scored a career-high 23 points and had several open looks throughout the night. But Johnson was held scoreless for the first time since Nov. 20, 2010, and just the second time in his last 47 games.
“We really focused on making sure he didn’t get off from the 3-point line,” guard Sherrod Wright said. “I don’t think he made a 3 today. But Ayers came and played well and hit big shots, but we weren’t as focused on him as No. 12 [Johnson].”
That commitment carried into the Bison’s final meaningful possession. Conventional wisdom suggested Ayers was the hot hand, but he’d missed his last two shots. Mason remained glued to Johnson, with Morrison switching onto him to prevent him from taking a pass.
Instead, Bucknell found center Mike Muscala, whose 3-point attempt was open. It was also an airball.
“Even though he was somewhat open, I’d rather have him shoot the ball than Johnson,” coach Paul Hewitt said.
And so the Patriots extended their winning streak in Fairfax to 18 games, including four this season. In the process, they head into their first conference game —- Saturday at Towson —- with a three-game winning streak.
They also know they can beat a capable foe dedicated to slowing down Pearson, a valuable bit of knowledge as Mason delves deeper into its schedule.
“We’re going to play through Ryan,” Hewitt said. “He’s mature enough now to understand when to pass it.”
And Mason, even with injuries and fluctuating personnel, is mature enough to take advantage of it.
—- Patrick Stevens