Paul Hewitt wore the perplexed look of a man unable to avoid a familiar migraine set in Tuesday.
George Mason found a comfortable sequence to repeat: Start fast, relax and try like crazy to hold on.
Considering rebuilding UMBC was the opponent in Fairfax, there weren’t many anxious moments in the 74-63 victory. But it was yet again puzzling how the Patriots could pack two games into one and make life much more difficult than needed.
“It’s been since I’ve been here,” Hewitt said. “Last year, we had games like this. The Lamar game, we got a big lead. I talked to people and they just said it’s been the personality of this group and we have to try to break that.”
Perhaps more than anything besides finding a point guard, it is the most important task facing Hewitt in his second year at Mason (6-3). The Patriots have done nothing egregious, their losses at Bucknell (a possible NCAA tournament team) and on neutral courts to New Mexico and Maryland. Those three teams are a combined 22-2. There’s no reason to reach for a panic switch.
Nonetheless, there is a distinct sense something isn’t quite right with Mason, which roared to a 30-11 lead Tuesday thanks to Sherrod Wright (23 points) only to immediately allow a 12-0 run and eventually let the Retrievers to snip the deficit to six.
“It’s starting to get annoying for all of us,” forward Jonathan Arledge said. “We’re trying to stop letting up, stop taking our foot off their throat and just keep punishing teams. Then we let them get a few open shots and just get lazy on defense and that’s when they start getting some open shots and slow us up. Then we’ll start to force stuff up on offense and it won’t go in and we won’t run our offense.”
While Hewitt left little doubt with his body language how unenthused he was with Tuesday’s inconsistent officiating, his own team’s eagerness to settle for shots early in the shot clock created greater consternation.
It was what he pointed to at halftime of a game last week at Rhode Island. The Patriots built a 13-point lead, and this was an opportunity for growth, to throttle a team when it was down.
The advantage was gone in less than seven minutes, though Mason recovered for a victory.
The same penchant to come and go was on display in Sunday’s BB&T Classic, when the Patriots erased a four-point halftime deficit against Maryland, only to quit running their offense and gradually fading.
And then it happened again, this time against a limited UMBC bunch that nonetheless played hard for interim coach Aki Thomas.
“We just lost intensity,” Wright said. “We’ve been doing that consistently this year. Once we get up, we just relax a little bit. That’s something that we can’t do coming up Saturday and definitely playing better teams.”
Mason finishes the month with some brand-name opposition: Northern Iowa in Fairfax, Richmond on a nominally neutral court and at South Florida. And it must still find a point guard for the long haul. Corey Edwards drew his first start in more than a year over Bryon Allen, and Hewitt indicated Vertrail Vaughns could see time there as well.
But the habit of letting teams loiter has not dissipated, and it is one that could prove costly to the Patriots in the months to come.
“We’re working on it,” Arledge said. “We’re going to get it. Hopefully next game. Hopefully the game after that.”
“Hopefully the rest of the season,” Wright interjected.
Hopefully, indeed, if only for the sake of relieving the most consistently befuddling headache Hewitt has faced since he arrived at Mason last year.
—- Patrick Stevens